IRL: Indy Racing drivers finish in top five

Hornish finishes second, Sharp third, Unser fifth in all-star race DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Friday, Feb. 15, 2002 - Two past Indy Racing League champions and the present champion Friday made the season's first True Value International Race of ...

Hornish finishes second, Sharp third, Unser fifth in all-star race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Friday, Feb. 15, 2002 - Two past Indy Racing League champions and the present champion Friday made the season's first True Value International Race of Champions at Daytona International Speedway one to remember.

The first three finishers in the series that has been dominated recently by stock-car drivers - 1996-97 IRL champion Tony Stewart, reigning champion Sam Hornish Jr. and 1996 co-champion Scott Sharp - all are veterans of open-wheel racing. And Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, led the most laps before finishing fifth.

Buddy Lazier finished 10th and Helio Castroneves 11th to round out the record-sized Indy Racing contingent.

Unser was shuffled out of the lead back to fifth on the 39th of 40 laps. Hornish helped push Stewart by Unser on the low side and then followed Stewart around too for second place at the checkered flag.

"Today the IRL shined," Unser said.

Stewart maintained the pride of the NASCAR stock-car drivers by winning now that he's a star on the Winston Cup Series, finishing runner-up to Jeff Gordon in that championship last year. It was Stewart's second career victory in the series for star drivers from a variety of different forms of racing.

"I knew that Al Unser Jr. was a good partner up front, and I knew he runs smooth," Stewart said of his IROC strategy. "When you're following the guy that's won the most IROC races in history, he knows how to stay up there, and he knows how to lead. Staying behind him was good.

"And having Sam Hornish behind us kind of made it interesting. He could make us pretty loose at times. But he was able to give us a lot of big steam and big momentum and a couple of good pushes there toward the end that helped us win this thing."

Hornish, 22, started 12th and last in his IROC debut. But Hornish - cheered on by his Pennzoil Panther Racing co-owners John Barnes, Gary Pedigo, Doug Boles and Boles' father, Judge Jeff Boles - worked his way through the pack a couple of times to complete a fine run in his first stock-car race.

When Stewart made his move, Hornish was uncertain whether to stay behind Unser or follow the Stewart's black car.

"I kind of wanted to push Al, but every time I went to the outside I got stuck out there," Hornish said. "I figured second was better than going back to sixth."

Said Stewart about Hornish, "He's a smart driver."

Sharp started on the pole, quickly got shoved to the rear and then brought his gold Firebird back to snatch third place. World of Outlaws champion Danny Lasoski finished fourth in his first career race on pavement.

2000 Indy Racing League champion Lazier experienced early difficulties in the 40-lap race on the 2 ½-mile oval, spun, took new tires but finished only .958 of a second behind Stewart. Castroneves, last year's fence-climbing Indianapolis 500 winner, battled up front in the first 20 laps, then drifted out of the line and never recovered.

Sharp said he learned a lot as the race went along, especially how to bump and grind. Then as the laps wound down, he suddenly found himself in fourth.

"I noticed with about five laps to go it was Little Al, Tony, then Hornish and myself," Sharp said. "I was like, 'Wow, three out of four, that's pretty good.' But Little Al tried to make a move and got shuffled. But still for us to run competitively says a lot about our oval-track ability."

Unser thanked the mechanics for giving him a car capable of winning but said it just wasn't quite strong enough at the end.

"I would have had to crash the car to stay in front of Tony," he said.

Lazier was puzzled over what made his car abruptly spin while in serious contention.

"It just shot up the racetrack and I did everything I could just to hold on," he said. "I just slid down. Luckily, when I was sliding, pit lane was perfectly positioned for me to run down pit lane sideways."

He darted into the pits and took four tires, but the car continued to run loose.

"I didn't have the best day," he said. "That's why there are four events. Hopefully, we can come back in the last three."

Castroneves, who will be a full-time IRL participant this season, joked before the race, "I was born to do this." He had never raced a stock car before today.

Then Castroneves went out and shortly was right up in the front, bumping the car in front of him. But then his tires faded, he drifted to the outside and was passed by half the cars.

"You have to be a little patient," Castroneves said. "There was a lot of bumping going on. I couldn't find anybody to draft with. All of a sudden my tires, especially the right front, were gone, completely gone. I was turning like a U-turn. I simply decided to be safe and finish the race.

"I want to get good. It is a challenge, and I want to go for it."

He will get his chance three more times, with the next event April 27 at California Speedway. The season finale is Aug. 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Stewart continued his impressive 2002 showing with the IROC victory. He started the year by winning the Chili Bowl midget race in Tulsa, Okla. He came to Daytona for Speed Weeks and kicked off the action leading up to Sunday's Daytona 500 by winning the Budweiser Shootout Feb. 10 for Winston Cup drivers who won poles last season. Next he finished second to Michael Waltrip in Thursday's second 125-mile qualifying race and will start sixth in the Daytona 500 in his Home Depot Pontiac.

So Stewart's victory cannot be considered a surprise. Hornish's second place certainly might be. But not to him.

"I took it like I do in my IRL car: I don't like to lose anything," Hornish said. "It feels pretty good.

"I've always been interested in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, primarily the Indianapolis 500. There is going to be some point in my life where I want to try to come down and run a one-off race and try to run the Daytona 500. It was quite a learning experience."

Last year on his way to winning the IRL title, Hornish finished sixth or better in 12 races and 14th in the Indianapolis 500 after an early. Now he starts the new season with a second place and is anxious to move on to the Indy Racing season opener, the Grand Prix of Miami on March 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to defend his race and season title.

QUOTEBOOK

SAM HORNISH JR. (Second): "I had been stuck on the high side most all the race, and anybody that I pushed by, they moved directly down in front of the inside line, and I got stuck out. I figured I'm going to go with the guy on the inside line. It's a guaranteed second place. I just tried to follow Tony. On the last lap, I thought I had a run on him coming off of (Turn) 4, but I guess it was too costly to try to go to the outside and get hung out and go back to fifth before you get to the finish line. It feels pretty good. I've always been interested in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, primarily the Indianapolis 500. There is going to be some point in my life where I want to try to come down and run a one-off race and try to run the Daytona 500. It was quite a learning experience."

SCOTT SHARP (Third): "It was a blast. They say IROC are always a lot of fun, and boy, it really was. Jay and the guys gave me a really well balanced car. I just hung in there and learned a heck of a lot as quickly as I could. I got moved around a lot but just moved them back a bit. I tried to be as physical to them as they were to me. I just had a great time. I noticed with about five to go it was Little Al then Tony then Hornish and myself. I was like, 'Wow, three out of the top four, that is pretty good.' But Little Al tried to make a move and got shuffled. But still for us to run competitively all day says a lot about our oval-track ability."

AL UNSER JR. (Fifth): "We had a good time. The car was excellent. I have to thank Barbara and Jay Signore and all the IROC mechanics. They gave me a race winner today. I would have had to crash the car to stay in front of Tony (Stewart). This is great. All of the guys who are invited to IROC are great champions. Everybody out there is a champion. Today the IRL shined."

BUDDY LAZIER (10th): "Whoever was behind me can probably tell you better than I can (about the spin). I just went from a really good handling race car to really terrible loose. Right in the middle of the corner, I don't know what happened. It just shot up the racetrack, and I did everything I could to just hold on. I just slid down. Luckily when I was sliding pit lane was perfectly positioned for me to run down pit lane sideways. I came in and replaced the tires. I'm sure I flat-spotted them. I don't know what caused that big loose. Then it was just hanging on. I didn't have the best day. That is why there are four events. Hopefully we can come back in the last three."

HELIO CASTRONEVES (11th): "I think I finished last. It was tough. Unfortunately, at the beginning I had a huge push, and all of a sudden I went straight to the wall and then I touched with Sam. You have to be a little patient. There was a lot of bumping going on. I couldn't find anybody to draft with. All of a sudden my tires, especially the right front, were gone, completely gone. I was turning like a U-turn. I simply decided to be safe and finish the race. I want to get good. It is a challenge, and I want to go for it."

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar , IROC
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Al Unser Jr. , Buddy Lazier , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Danny Lasoski , John Barnes , Sam Hornish Jr. , Sam Hornis
Teams Panther Racing