HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 21, 1998 -- Davey Hamilton once more is in the thick of the points race for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship. This time, he knows he must add one ingredient to secure the title that eluded him by a...
HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 21, 1998 -- Davey Hamilton once more is in the thick of the points race for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship.
This time, he knows he must add one ingredient to secure the title that eluded him by a mere six points last year.
"Right now we're fourth, and we know we have to win a race to win the championship," said Hamilton, 36, as the Pep Boys Indy Racing League comes to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the inaugural Atlanta 500 Classic presented by MCI on Saturday night, Aug. 29.
"The way the point structure is right now it pays so much more to win a race than second on back, meaning we have to win," he said. "If we win one race it'll put us in contention to win this championship."
The winner of the Atlanta race will receive 50 points, with second getting 40 and third 35. A 10th-place finish, for instance, is rewarded with only 20 points. Additionally, the pole winner picks up three points, while second- and third-fastest qualifiers get two and one, respectively. The driver leading the most laps collects another two points.
Heading into what should be an extremely fast and competitive race at Atlanta, Hamilton holds fourth with 219 points. He trails leader Scott Sharp by just 14 points. In between are Kenny Brack at 232 and defending series champion Tony Stewart at 227.
Even fifth-place Scott Goodyear with 194 points and sixth-place Buddy Lazier at 186 are less than a victory behind.
"The top five guys, I think you could throw a blanket over all of us," said Hamilton, an Idaho native. "So it'll be interesting."
Hamilton knows about "interesting." He came to the season finale at Las Vegas last year trailing Stewart by 10 points. He held the pole through much of qualifying, but then lost the two points (a different scoring system) when he was knocked out of the position by his A.J. Foyt Racing teammate, Billy Boat. Then in the race Hamilton battled to seventh place, but Stewart managed to bring his ill-handling car home 11th and picked up just enough points to clinch the championship.
Under this year's scoring system, Stewart still would have taken the title, but by just three points.
"Last year, it was so close it still hurts," Hamilton said.
This season, the three drivers in front of him all have won two races apiece. Hamilton's best finish is third in the season-opening Indy 200 at Orlando, Fla. On the other hand, he has had only one finish out of the top seven -- a 26th at Phoenix.
He placed fifth in the most recent race, the Radisson 200 on Aug. 16 at Pikes Peak International Raceway. He led 38 of the 200 laps.
In the last six races he has had finishes of 4-7-4-4-7-5.
"You just keep wondering what it's going to take to win that (first) race," said Hamilton, a veteran of USAC open-wheel racing.
"I know I want it very, very bad, this team wants it, the sponsors, the owner, the whole program. We hope it's just around the corner. A different thing beats us each time. It's just not easy, so when I get that win it's going to be a dream for me, really."
Hamilton drove two seasons for Foyt, the legendary four-time winner of the Indy 500. But A.J. released him at the end of last year. Hamilton then signed with the Nienhouse Motorsports team. Chicago-based owner Bob Nienhouse bought Rick Galles Racing, then appointed the former owner as general manager. Rick's son, Jamie, is team manager, and the team still operates out of Albuquerque, N.M.
Hamilton is driving a G Force and Dallara chassis, powered by Aurora engines and on Goodyear tires. Reebok became the team's primary sponsor starting at the Indianapolis 500 this year.
"They both have a lot of experience," Hamilton said about comparing Foyt and Rick Galles.
"I think the biggest difference is that A.J. is the engineer, the owner, everything over there. Over here, we have guys who do their jobs in their fantastic ways. They both work well. A.J., he's a great guy and he taught me a lot. I appreciate that. I'm just fortunate to come to another very good team."
Hamilton, who along with Stewart and two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk has started all 21 IRL races, comes to Atlanta with the disadvantage of not testing. Still, he feels that he has driven enough on the 1.5-mile tracks at Charlotte and Texas to feel comfortable. He's looking forward to racing at AMS but knows it will be another flat-out chase to the checkered flag.
But the gas-mashing racing on the 1.5-mile tracks places too much emphasis on the crew, Hamilton said. They must make the car handle for the full distance.
"When you get to the mile tracks, I think it brings more of the driver into it," he said. "And Indianapolis really brings the driver into it."
Racing under the lights is one thing he enjoys.
"I'm a Friday-night racer, so it's just another night at the races," he said.
ATLANTA 500 CLASSIC PRESENTED BY MCI NOTEBOOK
Atlanta 500 Classic schedule: The inaugural Atlanta 500 Classic presented by MCI starts at 9 p.m. Aug. 29. Pep Boys IRL drivers will race 208 laps on the 1.54-mile quad-oval.
Georgia Power Pole Night qualifying for the PPG Pole starts at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28. Practice sessions are scheduled for 4 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Aug. 27, 3:45 p.m. Aug. 28 and 4:30 p.m. Aug. 29. *** Broadcast schedule: The Atlanta 500 Classic presented by MCI will be televised live on TNN at 9 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 29. Georgia Power Pole Night qualifying for the PPG Pole will be televised live on SpeedVision at 6 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 28.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast the race live at 9 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 29, with a prerace show starting at 8:30 p.m.