For Immediate Release
STEWART CLAIMS IRL CHAMPIONSHIP; SALAZAR GETS FIRST WIN
INDIANAPOLIS, October 11, 1997 -- Tony Stewart claimed the 1996-97 Indy Racing League championship and Eliseo Salazar captured his first IRL win Saturday night in the Las Vegas 500k at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Stewart, carrying a 10-point lead going into the race over Davey Hamilton for the championship and needing only an eighth-place finish or better to clinch, fell back early out of race contention but hovered in the top 10 throughout the race before finishing 11th.
It was enough, as Hamilton, who started on the front row, stayed in the lead group early but fell back and finished seventh. The final point count was 278 for Stewart and 272 for Hamilton.
Salazar led the final 48 laps after becoming the race's 10th different leader (an IRL record) and posted a 1.204- second margin of victory over Scott Goodyear in the race itself. Salazar picked up $133,500 of a $1,135,500 purse for the victory.
Robbie Buhl, Stewart's teammate with Team Menard, finished third, followed by Jim Guthrie, who nailed down the IRL's Rookie of the Year title, and Mark Dismore, who got his best career IRL finish.
"Davey's a great competitor and a great friend," Stewart said of the last-race battle. "It's been a very long night. It's the only night of the year that we didn't have a car that was just right. They did the best for me they could and worked all race long to get the push out of the car. This team has been working long hours, sometimes 16 hours a day dating back to Orlando. None of the crew guys or their families complained all year long. This is deedication on everyone's part and we're so proud of everyone."
Asked about his informal designation as the IRL "poster child," Stewart said, "Maybe now they can take me off the back of the milk cartons."
Hamilton took the runner-up series spot in stride.
"The bottom line is Tony did what he had to do," Hamilton said. "We tried. We gained points on him...just not enough. We just fell a little short."
For Salazar, it was a welcome triumph. For Team Scandia engineer Dick Simon, it was his first victory in Indy- style cars as a driver,owner or engineer. Still, Salazar had to survive a restart with four laps remaining after a late-race caution.
"Three-quarters through the race, we knew what it took to win," Salazar said. "The wind picked up halfway through the race. I was afraid he (Goodyear) was going to pick up on the restart. I wasn't going to get excited until I saw the checkered flag."
In all, the IRL had nine different winners in 10 races during its second season in history. Arie Luyendyk won two events and Stewart, Salazar, Eddie Cheever Jr., Buddy Lazier, Richie Hearn, Jim Guthrie, Robbie Buhl and Scott Sharp won one race apiece.
Stewart captured the MBNA Lap Leader honor by leading 812 of the 1,973 laps run during the campaign. Hamilton had the most laps completed with 1,806.
Luyendyk was the series' top money winner with prize earnings of 2,079,150. Stewart was also over the $1 million barrier with $1,090,450.
A distribution of $1.6 million in series awards for entrants and drivers will be made at the IRL Awards Banquet Nov. 22 in Indianapolis.