POSTRACE NOTES: LAS VEGAS 500K, OCT. 11, LAS VEGAS BREAKING NEWS: Team Menard announced Oct. 13 that it plans to participate in all 11 events on the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League schedule. The team also appointed Thomas...
POSTRACE NOTES: LAS VEGAS 500K, OCT. 11, LAS VEGAS
BREAKING NEWS: Team Menard announced Oct. 13 that it plans to participate in all 11 events on the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League schedule.
The team also appointed Thomas Knapp as general manager. Knapp fielded a car for driver Greg Ray in seven Pep Boys IRL events this season.
"Mr. Knapp's reputation for honesty, integrity and technical expertise brings a renewed sense of enthusiasm and excitement to all of us at Team Menard for the upcoming season," team owner John Menard said.
The team's engine builder, Butch Meyer, grandson of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer, will assist Knapp. The team will continue its long-term relationship with Firestone tires in 1999, Menard said. Driver, engine and chassis selection is under evaluation and should be announced shortly, Menard said. Team Menard has been a mainstay of the Pep Boys IRL since the league's inception in 1996. The team has won four IRL races, three by Tony Stewart and one by Robbie Buhl. Stewart competed in his final race for the team as a full-time driver Oct. 11 at the Las Vegas 500K, as he is moving to NASCAR Winston Cup in 1999.
THE CHAMPION: .Kenny Brack: Brack didn't dominate the season-ending Las Vegas 500K, finishing 10th in the Power Team Racing Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear owned by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt. But that finish, combined with troubles encountered by title rivals Davey Hamilton and Tony Stewart, was enough to deliver Brack his first Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship and the Pep Boys Million bonus. Brack finished with 332 points. Hamilton, who finished 19th in the race, was second at 292. Stewart, 14th in the race, was third at 289. Brack, from Karlstad, Sweden, became the first Swede to win a season championship in a major North American auto racing series. "This is my biggest success," Brack said. "I've won many races, many championships, but this is the biggest achievement for me so far." Brack started to slow 10 laps into the race, and he fell from his sixth starting spot to 11th after just 15 laps with an apparent electrical problem. He entered the pits on Lap 17 and fell three laps down. "I had another electrical box, but he might as well stay out there and get some laps," Foyt said of his strategy not to replace the electrical system in the car during the pit stop. "We were already behind by about three laps. It's hard to make up three laps even when everything is running perfect. We were too far down to try anything." Brack also reported that the engine felt like it was running on seven cylinders instead of the full eight, possibly related to the electrical problem. But that woe cured itself, and Brack simply stayed out of trouble while it found Hamilton and Stewart. A chance at a record fourth victory this season was gone, but the championship was well within sight. "We had a plan to stay in contention until the end, but it just didn't turn out that way," Brack said. Brack cruised to the finish, six laps behind winner Arie Luyendyk. Still, the 202 laps he completed gave him 2,085 finished laps for the season, more than any other driver. His 10th-place finish also was his sixth straight top 10, another testament to the consistency that delivered the title. And as Brack basked in the glow of winning the title after the race, he made a statement that thrilled his fans but indicated that 1999 could be a long year for his Pep Boys IRL rivals. "I'm going to stay here with A.J.," Brack said. "I still have a lot to learn. I like this team. It's the best team I've ever been on, and we all get along good."
THE TITLE CONTENDERS:
.Davey Hamilton: Hamilton finished runner-up in the league standings for the second consecutive year, finishing 19th in what he called the toughest race of his career. He entered the race 31 points behind leader Kenny Brack and needed to finish fourth or better to have any shot at catching Brack.
But Hamilton started 18th in the Reebok-Nienhouse Motorsports Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear and never really got going in the race. He climbed to ninth by Lap 20 but fell into the middle of the field thereafter.
The Nienhouse Motorsports team was forced to replace the entire electronic-control unit in the car on Lap 112, effectively ending Hamilton's chances of a top-10 finish. But the day only got worse from there. Hamilton and Roberto Guerrero collided between turns 1 and 2 on the 1.5-mile oval on a Lap 129 restart. Both drivers were unhurt but eliminated. It was the first time since the Dura-Lube 200 on March 22 at Phoenix that Hamilton failed to finish in the top 10. He entered this race with eight consecutive top-10 finishes.
"It was tough out there," Hamilton said. "We had a tough day struggling with the car all day. I thought it was just us, but I could see everyone struggling.
"We came here planning to get the pole and win. Losing the championship
was a heartbreaker."
.Tony Stewart: Stewart faced longer odds than Hamilton at winning his second straight season championship, as he was 41 points behind Brack entering the race. Stewart needed to second or better to have any shot of catching Brack.
It didn't take long to see that wasn't going to happen in his final race as a full-time driver in the Pep Boys IRL.
Stewart mysteriously fell backward from his No. 2 starting spot as the green flag flew to begin the race.
By the end of the first lap, he was seventh. By the end of the third lap, he was 25th in the 28-car field. By the end of the fifth lap, he was last. By the end of the seventh lap, his Glidden-Menards-Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone was spinning while trying to enter the pits for repairs.
The team changed all the electrical parts in the engine, but Stewart didn't return to the track until Lap 35. He was 28 laps down. Once again, he wouldn't lead a lap at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the only track in his sterling Pep Boys IRL career that he didn't lead a lap.
But Stewart showed characteristic tenacity despite driving a crippled car. He clawed back to finish 14th, 30 laps behind winner Luyendyk. He earned $40,900 for the victory, pushing his 1998 winnings to $1,002,850.
"I just couldn't believe it," Stewart said. "We got the green, and the car wouldn't go. We don't know for sure what it was.
"It was a disappointing year for us. I wanted to finish my full-time IRL career on a high note, especially for my guys. They worked hard all year. We just couldn't get any luck to go with us."
Stewart still finished his full-time IRL career with many records. He was one of only four drivers to start all 24 IRL races since the league's inception in 1996. He led all drivers with nine career PPG Poles, 1,502 career laps led and led in 20 of his 24 races. He also led 193 of 200 laps while earning his first career victory, in June 1997 at Pikes Peak International Raceway, also a league record.
Stewart also set season records in 1996-97 by leading 812 laps. He also set a league record by leading at least one lap in the first 10 races this season.
.Arie Luyendyk: Luyendyk ended a 14-race winless streak with his first victory since June 1997, holding off Sam Schmidt at the finish by .926 of a second to win the season-ending Las Vegas 500K at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Luyendyk dominated the race in the Sprint PCS-RadioShack-QUALCOMM G Force/Aurora/Firestone, leading five times for 88 laps, more than any other driver. He took the lead for good on Lap 169, when leader John Paul Jr. made his final pit stop. Luyendyk made his last stop four laps earlier.
The victory was the fourth of Luyendyk's Pep Boys IRL career, a league record.
The timing of the victory couldn't have been any better. Luyendyk, 45, openly hinted at retirement after finishing last and completing just five laps at the previous race, the Lone Star 500K on Sept. 20.
But that nightmare became a faded memory as he drove with authority in front of executives from many of his sponsors. His previous best finish this season was fourth at the VisionAire 500K on July 25 at Charlotte, N.C.
"You get a lot of self-doubt when you have bad races," Luyendyk said. "When you have a day like today, it makes up for all of the other misery."
Luyendyk qualified 14th, but a prerace change by team engineer Tim Wardrop turned his car into a rocket. Luyendyk climbed to 10th after just one lap, sixth after 20 laps, second after 40 laps and took the lead for the first time by passing fellow Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. on Lap 42.
"We weren't necessarily the fastest car," Luyendyk said. "I think we were a little bit better on response. Firestone tires were the key to our success today."
Luyendyk climbed from 13th to eighth in the final point standings with his victory.
.Sam Schmidt: Schmidt produced a career-best second-place finish before
his hometown crowd with solid driving and a little help from a friend.
Schmidt was forced to scurry up and down the pit lane Saturday afternoon, looking for an engine, when he learned that his new engine was stuck in shipping in Toledo, Ohio. Tom Kelley, owner of Kelley Racing, loaned Schmidt one of his team's Comptech engines.
What a difference.
Schmidt started 23rd in the Best Western Gold Crown Racing Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone, but he started a steady climb toward the front from the start. He moved to sixth after just 40 laps, but he admitted after the race that that climb could have been even more dramatic due to the added power of the new engine.
"The car wasn't handling very well," Schmidt said. "We made a substantial change in the chassis, and we held back until after the first yellow and then let go a bit."
Schmidt deftly climbed to third by Lap 180 and passed John Paul Jr. on a restart on Lap 204. Schmidt made contact with Paul's right front wing, removing it. But his car was unscathed, and we drove ahead in pursuit of Luyendyk.
"I was apprehensive about that last restart," Schmidt said. "The pit told me I had cleared him (Paul), and I thought I had given him enough room to clear. I looked in my mirror, and I saw a white flash, and it must have been John Paul. I hated to end his day like that."
Schmidt trailed Luyendyk by 1.515 seconds with three trips left around the 1.5-mile oval, but he poured on the power to finish with .926 of a second at the line.
.Buddy Lazier: Midway through the race, it appeared that Lazier would be the driver who would end a long dry spell, not Luyendyk.
Lazier entered this event with a 12-race winless streak, as his last victory came in the VisionAire 500 in July 1997 at Charlotte, N.C. But he led laps 50-97 and laps 113-124 in the Hemelgarn Racing-Delta Faucet-Coors Light-Xerox Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear. Then clouds started to form in the desert sky, changing the handling of Lazier's car from a dream to handful. He never led thereafter but hung tough to finish third.
"The crew and I thought we had the car to beat for the first two-thirds of the race," Lazier said. "Then when the sun went behind the clouds, we got tight. I brushed the wall in Turn 2 right before the end of the race. We had way too much push at the end to compete." Still, Lazier's finish vaulted him from seventh to fifth in the final league point standings.
THE REST OF THE STORY:
.Robby is top rookie: Robby Unser clinched the Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award by finishing 16th in The Children's Beverage Group-Team Cheever G Force/Aurora/Goodyear. He earned a $50,000 bonus. Unser, son of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser, ended the season with 176 points. Brian Tyler finished second in the rookie standings with 140 points. "I'm really lucky that I'm the one they put their faith and trust in," Unser said of Team Cheever, which he joined at the Indianapolis 500. "Great team, and Eddie (Cheever) is great, too. "It's an honor to race for these guys. All I do is close my eyes and turn left. This Rookie of the Year actually goes to my crew and my team." .Four top $1 million: Eddie Cheever Jr., Kenny Brack, Buddy Lazier and Tony Stewart each won at least $1 million this season, a league record. The previous record was three, set in the 1996-97 season. Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever topped the money list with $1,811,200. Brack was second at $1,096,700, Boat third at $1,004,150 and Stewart fourth at $1,002,850. .Oldsmobile stays perfect: The Oldsmobile Aurora engine finished the 1998 Pep Boys Indy Racing League season the same way it started - perfect. Olds Aurora-powered drivers won all 11 races and PPG Poles this season. In fact, the Aurora engine has won all 19 IRL races and PPG Poles since the league switched to its normally aspirated engine formula in January 1997. .Coors backs league, Lazier: Coors Brewing Company and the Pep Boys Indy Racing League announced Oct. 10 a new sponsorship agreement for racing events beginning with the 1999 season. Coors Light will become the first-ever Official Beer of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League and the Official Beer of the Indianapolis 500. Coors Light will also be title sponsor of the USAC Silver Crown Championship Series, which will be known as the Coors Light Silver Bullet Series. Coors also announced that it would again sponsor driver Buddy Lazier for the 1999 season. .Brack to split $100,000 with fan: Kenny Brack and a lucky Pep Boys IRL fan will split $100,000 in the MCI Pep Boys Million contest. Brack won the first two races of the three-race contest, the VisionAire 500 at Charlotte, N.C., and the Atlanta 500 Classic presented by MCI. Brack and the lucky fan could have split $1 million if he won this race, the final event of the contest.
THE FACTS AND FIGURES:
.Rookie Brian Tyler finished a career-best sixth. His previous best finish was 12th in the Pep Boys 400K in July at Dover, Del.
.This was the second consecutive race in which the winner started 14th. John Paul Jr. started in that spot en route to victory in the Lone Star 500 last month at Texas Motor Speedway.
.Rookie Donnie Beechler became the 21st driver to lead a lap this season when he led Lap 47.
THE NEXT EVENT:
Jan. 24, 1999, Indy 200, Walt Disney World Speedway, Orlando, Fla.