IRL: California: Qualifying report

Cheever earns historic pole for Infiniti at California FONTANA, Calif., Saturday, March 23, 2002 - Eddie Cheever Jr. earned his first career MBNA Pole and the first Indy Racing League pole for an Infiniti engine as he took the top spot March 23...

Cheever earns historic pole for Infiniti at California

FONTANA, Calif., Saturday, March 23, 2002 - Eddie Cheever Jr. earned his first career MBNA Pole and the first Indy Racing League pole for an Infiniti engine as he took the top spot March 23 for the Yamaha Indy 400 at California Speedway.

Cheever's best lap was 32.5171 seconds, 221.422 mph in the No. 51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone on the 2-mile oval. Cheever's previous best starting spot in 57 previous Indy Racing starts was second last July at Kansas Speedway for the Ameristar Casino Indy 200, an event he won with Infiniti power.

This is the 53rd IRL event in which an Infiniti engine powered at least one qualifier.

"We got the first win for Nissan," Cheever said, referring to his victory in 2000 at Pikes Peak. "Now we got the first pole, so that's good for our team. It's a first for Red Bull Cheever Racing."

Said Charlie Bamber, Infiniti Motorsports chief engineer: "We have worked very hard for this. We are thrilled to see Eddie on the pole with the Infiniti Indy 35A engine. It's perfect to achieve the milestone of our first pole position here in the hometown of Nissan North America, Inc."

Cheever, who led the morning practice at 220.721 mph, now hopes his powerful engine will be durable enough for the second-longest race in IRL history.

"This is a precursor for the Indy 500," Cheever said. "Everyone will be watching to see if their cars finish the 400 miles. I'll be watching, as well."

The Yamaha Indy 400, the first Indy Racing event in Southern California, starts at 3:30 p.m. (EST) Sunday and will be televised live on ESPN.

Jaques Lazier, who lives in Alta Loma, Calif., just a few miles west of the track, earned the outside spot on the front row with a lap of 32.5926, 220.909 in the No. 2T Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

"I thought 221 would be probably the maximum, but Eddie kind of took that over," Lazier said. "I'm real happy with our overall effort. I thought we might have had them for qualifying, but Eddie put together a real strong run. I would like to congratulate him. Come race time, I think we have a better race car than we do a qualifying car, so I'm excited about our chances."

The historic pole by 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever capped a strong qualifying session for Infiniti-powered drivers, who captured four of the top six spots in the starting field.

Cheever's teammate, rookie Tomas Scheckter, tied a career best with third at 32.7778, 219.661 in the No. 51T Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone, which is Cheever's backup car. Robbie Buhl was fifth at 32.8366, 219.268 in the No. 24 Team Purex/Aventis/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing G Force/Infiniti/Firestone, and rookie Laurent Redon was a career-best sixth at 32.8751, 219.011 in the No. 34 Mi-Jack Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone.

Buhl's strong run was bittersweet, however, as he crashed into the outside retaining wall between Turns 1 and 2 immediately after his final lap. He was admitted to no Loma Linda Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif., in good condition with a concussion and will not drive in the race, said Dr. Henry Bock, Indy Racing League director of medical services. Open-wheel veteran Memo Gidley, from San Rafael, Calif., will replace Buhl and start at the rear of the field in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team's backup car.

Indy Racing League points leader Sam Hornish Jr. helped to break up the Infiniti power monopoly at the top of the speed chart. He qualified fourth at 32.8153, 219.410 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

Hornish's closest pursuers in the standings, Marlboro Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, struggled during qualifying. de Ferran led the team in 13th with a top lap of 33.0473, 217.870 in the No. 6T Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. 2001 Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves was 16th at 33.0997, 217.525 in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser was 18th at 33.1714, 217.054 in the No. 19T Miller Lite/Team Rahal Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Vasser and Team Rahal, full-time CART competitors, are racing in an IRL event for the first time.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Eddie Cheever , Robbie Buhl , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jimmy Vasser , Memo Gidley , Jaques Lazier  , Laurent Redon , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Team Penske , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing