IRL: Atlanta race preview

ATLANTA, Thursday, April 12, 2001 - As the Indy Racing Northern Light Series heads to Georgia for its annual stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the big question on everyone's minds is simple. Can anyone stop Sam? Sam Hornish Jr. won the first two...

ATLANTA, Thursday, April 12, 2001 - As the Indy Racing Northern Light Series heads to Georgia for its annual stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the big question on everyone's minds is simple.

Can anyone stop Sam?

Sam Hornish Jr. won the first two races of the season and will attempt to tie a series record with his third consecutive win April 28 in the Atlanta 500 Classic at AMS. Kenny Brack is the only other driver in Indy Racing League history to win three consecutive races in one season, pulling off the hat trick en route to the series championship in 1998.

Hornish, 21, dominated the first two races. He led 140 of 200 laps on March 18 at Phoenix and led 142 of 200 on April 8 at Miami. That's right: Hornish has led 70 percent of the laps contested this year in his No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.

That kind of juggernaut will be tough to stop.

But there may be a few variables at Atlanta that could help the field close the gap to second-year phenom Hornish.

First, this is the first night race of the year. The cool air and lack of sunshine can make it tricky for teams to find the right setup.

Second, this is the first race of the season on a high-banked track. The 1.5-mile oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway features turns with 24-degree banking. Phoenix's turns are banked at just 9 and 11 degrees, while Miami is the flattest track in the series with turn banking of just 6 degrees.

But for any teams or drivers hanging their helmets on those statistics, here are some sobering facts.

Pennzoil Panther Racing won the season finale last year with Scott Goodyear on a 1.5-mile, 24-degree banking track at Texas Motor Speedway. So the team knows how to tune a car for the fishbowl-like environment of high-banked tracks. And the team also helped Goodyear to a win at the June 1999 night race at Texas, so it's adept at finding a fast setup under the lights.

Uh-oh.

Still, there are plenty of candidates who could end Hornish's hot streak, starting with defending race champion Greg Ray. 1999 Indy Racing champion Ray won both the MBNA Pole and race last July at Atlanta in dominant fashion. He also was fastest in private testing this week at AMS in his No. 2 Johns Manville/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone, matching his 2000 MBNA Pole lap of 24.98 seconds.

Ray also has plenty of motivation, as he has endured a rough start to the season and is tied for 23rd in the Northern Light Cup point standings.

Sarah Fisher also is another contender for the top spot. Fisher, 20, put together a masterful drive in Miami in the No. 15 Walker Racing/Kroger Special Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone, falling just 1.870 seconds short of Hornish at the checkered flag. Her second-place finish was the best ever by a woman in Indy-style racing.

The 1-2 finish by Hornish and Fisher also rekindled a rivalry between the duo that started on kart tracks 10 years ago in their native Ohio.

Other top contenders are Eliseo Salazar in the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone, rookie points leader Felipe Giaffone in the No. 21 Hollywood G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone, Jeff Ward in the No. 35 Heritage Motorsports/Firestone/Menards G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone, 1999 Atlanta winner Scott Sharp in the No. 8 Delphi Automotive Systems Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone and defending Northern Light Series champion Buddy Lazier in the No. 91 Tae-Bo/Coors Light/Delta Faucet Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.

And don't forget two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., who rebounded from a rough start in Phoenix to finish sixth in Miami in his No. 3 Galles Racing Starz SuperPak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone.

The race starts at 7 p.m. (EDT) April 28 and will be televised live by ESPN2.

ATLANTA 500 CLASSIC NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The Atlanta 500 Classic starts at 7 p.m. (EDT) April 28. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 8 p.m. (EDT) April 27. Practice sessions start at 2:30 and 5:15 p.m. April 27, and 3:30 p.m. April 28.

A free autograph session with all Indy Racing drivers is scheduled for 9:15 p.m. April 27 in the garage area after MBNA Pole Qualifying.

On the air: The Atlanta 500 Classic will be televised live on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. (EDT) April 28. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised live at 6:30 p.m. April 28 on ESPN2.

MBNA Pole Qualifying will be televised at a time to be announced.

The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) April 28, followed by the live race broadcast at 7 p.m. The Atlanta-area affiliates is WBTR-AM-FM, Carrolton, Ga.; WYAY-FM, Atlanta; WTRP-AM, LaGrange, Ga.; and WEKS-FM, Griffin, Ga.

The IMS Radio Network race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracing.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.

Tickets: Tickets for the Atlanta 500 Classic are available by calling (770) 946-4211, at Ticketmaster Ticket Centers or online at www.ticketmaster.com .

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Eliseo Salazar , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Scott Goodyear , Kenny Brack , A.J. Foyt , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing