IRL: 1998 Season Review

BRACK, CHEEVER CREATED MAGIC PEP BOYS IRL MEMORIES IN 1998 INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 25, 1998 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. ended 20 years of frustration while Kenny Brack enjoyed a Swedish smorgasbord as the third Pep Boys Indy Racing League season ...


INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 25, 1998 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. ended 20 years of frustration while Kenny Brack enjoyed a Swedish smorgasbord as the third Pep Boys Indy Racing League season played out in 1998.

Cheever, a veteran of more Formula One races than any other American driver, finally ended a nine-year search for victory in his homeland's most renowned race -- the Indianapolis 500 -- with a powerful win in the 82nd running of the event on May 24. Cheever's victory in the Rachel's Gourmet Potato Chips Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear came at age 40 and in his 223rd major league open-wheel race stretching back to 1978.

Cheever's only other win during all of that time came in the rain-shortened Pep Boys IRL race in 1997 at Walt Disney World Speedway.

Brack, a native of Glava, Sweden, found a racing home in the most unlikely place. American racing legend A.J. Foyt, winner of four Indy 500's, took Brack on board as a teammate to American short-track star Billy Boat.

Boat and Brack formed a one-two punch throughout the whole season, making them the drivers to beat either for the PPG Pole or the race victory.

Brack capitalized on his opportunity by turning the second half of the season into a championship run with a league-record three-race winning streak. His smorgasbord of wins in his Power Team Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear came on two 1.5-mile sea-level tracks at Charlotte and Atlanta under the lights and under a blazing sun on the mile-high, mile-long track outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

That streak helped Brack secure the Pep Boys Million bonus as the season champion from new series sponsor Pep Boys, which joined the league just before the season opener in January at Orlando, Fla. Brack scored 332 points, 40 more than runner-up Davey Hamilton. Meanwhile, Boat drove his Conseco Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear to the PPG Pole at Indy and at five other races. He won the True Value 500 in June at Texas Motor Speedway, prevailing in a stirring duel with Greg Ray. However, Boat, a college graduate and short-track racing star out of Phoenix, missed two races after suffering a broken leg in a crash in late June at New Hampshire.

1996-97 league champion Tony Stewart and Scott Sharp each win twice this season, and John Paul Jr. and Arie Luyendyk win one race apiece. Stewart, driving the Glidden-Menards-Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone, also added four PPG poles for an IRL career record of nine and pushed his career laps led to 1,502, 1,085 more than runner-up Jeff Ward.

Ward captured the Phoenix pole, the only one not won by either Boat or Stewart.

Cheever, Brack, Boat and Stewart all topped $1 million in earnings. Cheever led the way with $1,811,200, the largest chunk of $1,433,000 coming from his Indy victory. Brack closed with $1,096,700, and he and Foyt collected another $1 million check at the season-ending banquet Nov. 21 as driving and car owner champions. Boat earned $1,004,150 and Stewart $1,002,850.

For Luyendyk, who won the season finale at Las Vegas, and Stewart it was a farewell season. Luyendyk, the Dutchman who won two Indy 500s and set all of the speed records at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced on Nov. 20 he would drive one last race for car owner Fred Treadway at the Indy 500 in 1999 and then retire at age 45. Stewart will move to NASCAR's Winston Cup series next year. However, Stewart's stock-car owner, Joe Gibbs, has arranged for him to drive at Indy on May 30 and then fly to Charlotte, N.C., for the Coca-Cola 600 that night.

Stewart jump-started the 1998 season by grabbing the PPG Pole, leading 132 laps and taking the checkered flag by 8.5 seconds over Ward in the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway in January. At Phoenix in late March it appeared Stewart was well on his way to a second straight victory. But during a late restart following an accident, Stewart was unable to immediately get around leader Sharp's teammate, Mark Dismore. When he did, it was too late to overtake Sharp's Delphi Automotive Systems Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear. Sharp won the Dura-Lube 200 by 2.366 seconds.

For the first time, the Indianapolis 500 became a one-weekend qualifying event. An exciting two days of qualifying yielded plenty of cars bumping in and out of the field, with a close field of 33 cars the result.

Boat charged to the PPG Pole with a speed of 223.503 mph, and Brack was on the outside at 220.982. But the shocker was Texan Greg Ray sitting between them at 221.125. At the start of the week, he announced his major sponsor had pulled out. Only help from fans and a few last-minutes sponsors provided the funds to continue. He led 18 laps in the race.

Stewart took the lead from fourth on Lap 21. Then his engine malfunctioned on the next lap, and he placed 33rd and last for a finish that eventually might have cost him the season championship.

Cheever, starting 17th, drove the race of his life. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 68 and regained it from 1996 Indy champion Buddy Lazier for the last time on Lap 178. He turned the fastest lead lap of 213.904 mph on Lap 187 and refused to yield to Lazier on a restart on Lap 195, blocking Lazier's passing efforts down the straight and then charging on to the win.

"The last 20 laps were the hardest I've ever driven," said a weary but ecstatic Cheever.

At Texas, Ray attained a one-race local sponsor and drove fearlessly before nearly 100,000 screaming hometown fans, chasing down Boat on Lap 201 of the True Value 500. But Boat responded and regained the lead on the next circuit and held for six more to score his first IRL victory by a mere .928 of a second. Three weeks later at New Hampshire, Stewart led the last 38 laps and outlasted Scott Goodyear in the Pennzoil Panther G Force/Aurora/Goodyear to win by 1.788 seconds. Boat was injured, and Foyt hired Ray as a two-race replacement.

Next the series moved to the high-banked Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway for the first time. Sharp led 145 of 248 laps in a tough event, winning the Pep Boys 400K by barely six-tenths of a second over the hard-charging Lazier, who nearly rear-ended him at the line in a dramatic finish.

Brack was sixth in the series point standings after finishing 10th at Dover, seemingly an outside player in the race for the championship. But then the greatest run in series history started six days later at the VisionAire 500 in Charlotte. Foyt's Power Team crew did a great job of keeping Brack on the same lap with the leaders on the final pit stop. Brack then did the rest, methodically and speedily running down Ward in the next 20 laps. He made a thrilling three-wide pass of Ward for the lead with 13 laps to go and motored on to win by 5.602 seconds.

Brack made another late pass - over Team Menard driver Robbie Buhl on Lap 197 - in the Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway to win his second in a row. Boat won the first of four consecutive PPG Poles in his comeback from injuries suffered at New Hampshire.

It was on to Atlanta. Brack once again displayed his comeback style as the Pep Boys IRL brought open-wheel racing to the Deep South for the first time since the early 1980s. This time more than 60,000 fans cheered Brack to his record third straight win. Brack passed Ward one lap sooner for the lead than he did at Charlotte. Hamilton kept his bid for the title alive with a second-place finish in the Reebok-Nienhouse Motorsports Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear.

The league then made a second visit of the season to Texas in mid-September for the Lone Star 500, and John Paul Jr. scored a popular victory for the Jonathan Byrd/Clayton Cunningham team. Paul had replaced Mike Groff earlier in the season and had not won a race since 1983.

Robby Unser, son of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser, finished second. It was his best finish en route to winning Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year honors in The Children's Beverage Group G Force/Aurora/Goodyear owned by Cheever.

Boat finished 14th at Texas. But combined with his victory in the True Value 500 in June, he scored enough points to win the $100,000 Texas Two-Step Championship bonus awarded to the driver who scored the most combined points in the two races this year at Texas.

Brack placed fifth at Texas and carried a 31-point lead over Hamilton into the finale at Las Vegas. Luyendyk won his fourth career IRL race after the team switched engine builders. Brack hung on for a 10th-place finish to clinch the title and also earned $50,000 for winning two of the three races in the MCI-Pep Boys Million Dollar Driver Sweepstakes contest. Brack's two challengers for the season title finished behind him at Vegas, Hamilton 19th and Stewart 14th.

Hamilton settled for a second straight second in the final standings, by a 332-292 count. Stewart ended third with 289.

Source: IRL/IMS

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Robbie Buhl , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Davey Hamilton , Scott Sharp , Arie Luyendyk , Billy Boat , Mark Dismore , Scott Goodyear , Kenny Brack , Robby Unser , John Paul , A.J. Foyt