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Lazier’s IRL defense of
‘Belterra 300’ may be difficult

Hornish Jr., many newcomers stand in his way

By Don Ward,
Editor

(August 2002) - In the past two years that the Indy Racing League has visited the Kentucky Speedway, driver Buddy Lazier has had reserved parking in Victory Circle following the “Belterra Casino Indy 300.”

But that could easily change this year. Given the fact that the IRL has had four different winners through July 20 this season, the odds are growing that a new driver might take over Lazier’s spot in the Victory Circle when the series returns here Aug. 11. The 1:30 p.m. (EDT-fast time) race will be televised live on ABC-TV and preceded by the debut of the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series race at 11 a.m.
“The season championship is wide open, that’s for sure. I just hope I’m there at the end and in the hunt,” Lazier said at a recent press conference.
The Vail Colo., native hasn’t yet won an IRL race this season. He has had four top-10 finishes, but none in the top five. His best was seventh at Phoenix, Fontana, Calif., and Kansas. But his season got a lift in mid-July when he won the International Race of Champions event. It was the third of an eventual four races featuring 12 drivers competing in an “all star” series that concludes Aug. 3 at the Indiana-polis Motor Speedway.
“The 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner started on the pole July 13 and led all 67 laps of the caution-free IROC race at Chicagoland Speedway. The victory in his Pontiac Firebird Trans Am put him in fifth place, just seven points off the series points lead. Perhaps more importantly, it gave him a confidence boost for the rest of the IRL regular season.

Buddy Lazier

Buddy Lazier

But on Saturday night, July 20, Lazier was taken out of the IRL’s “Firestone Indy 200” at Nashville, Tenn., when he hit the wall late in the race. His renewed confidence was no match for bad luck.
The IRL visited Brooklyn, Mich., on July 28 prior to its stop in Kentucky.
Then Lazier will likely face an uphill battle when he returns to Sparta to defend his title. After the July 20 race in Nashville, Lazier, the 2000 IRL season champion, was in 12th place in the points race. Points leaders after July 20 were Gil De Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., Felipe Giaffone and Alex Barron.
Even though Barron won, it was Hornish who dominated much of the race in Nashville. He has done so many times this season, only to find himself in second or third place at the end. Hornish has found the winner’s circle, however, on three occasions this year – at the season opener in Miami, at Fontana, Calif., and at Richmond, Va. He placed third in three races, including the July 20 outing in Nashville, and second at Kansas.
The Defiance, Ohio, native has had two exciting races at Kentucky and nearly won here as a rookie in 2000. Last year, Hornish chased Lazier, Robbie Buhl and Scott Sharp most of the day before finishing third behind Lazier and Sharp. Hornish went on to win the series’ point championship after notching three victories and 11 top-five finishes and earning $1.467 million. He is back again this season driving for Pennzoil Panther Racing team.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Sam Hornish Jr

Sharp led the first 105 laps at Kentucky last year but seemed to have a different car after he emerged from his first pit stop. Later, he was among a handful of drivers who complained about bumps on the track. In the offseason, Kentucky Speedway officials repaved the track. The result has been nothing but praise from drivers of all circuits who have tested or raced there this year.
Lazier, meanwhile, led 84 laps last year but didn’t take the lead for good until Lap 198 when he slipped past Buhl as he ran out of gas due to a pit stop error earlier in the race. Buhl had had passed Lazier a lap earlier.
A confident and jubilent Lazier said afterward, “I would been real surprised if he had gotten around me again (if he hadn’t have run out of gas).” Lazier had started 11th in the 22-car field.
After emerging from his car and hugging his wife, Kara, Lazier dedicated his victory to his grandmother, Maxine, who was suffering from leukemia. Then he was congratulated by team owner Ron Hemelgarn, who had taken a chance on the driver and had it pay off when Lazier won the 1996 Indy 500. Lazier won that race while still healing from a broken back.
Lazier isn’t suffering from broken bones this year, but perhaps a broken ego. He hasn’t been able to find the magic this season. Some former CART drivers-turned IRL drivers, meanwhile, have provided the series with more balance.
Look for a hotly contested race at Kentucky, with any one of the top five drivers to find his way into Victory Circle. And who knows? Given his record here, Lazier might still find the magic to win his third consecutive “Belterra Casino Indy 300” title.

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