IRL: New Hampshire Scott Sharp Preview

CONSISTENCY GIVES SHARP AN EDGE IN CLIMB TOWARD TOP SPOT INDIANAPOLIS, June 23, 1998 -- Scott Sharp was fourth on Lap 181 in the Indianapolis 500 last month when his car lost its transmission. He slipped to 16th by the time winner Eddie...

CONSISTENCY GIVES SHARP AN EDGE IN CLIMB TOWARD TOP SPOT

INDIANAPOLIS, June 23, 1998 -- Scott Sharp was fourth on Lap 181 in the Indianapolis 500 last month when his car lost its transmission. He slipped to 16th by the time winner Eddie Cheever Jr. took the checkered flag 19 laps later.

Not so hot, you say.

Well, it still was better than what happened to Tony Stewart and part of the reason the two drivers come to the New England 200 on June 28 at New Hampshire International Speedway tied for the lead in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League point standings with 115 each. While Sharp picked up only 14 points for his hard-luck finish, Stewart had engine problems one lap after taking the lead only 23 laps into the race and finished last, receiving a single point.

Move on to the True Value 500 earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway for another example of why the two drivers, who won the first two races of the season, are deadlocked at the top.

Stewart led seven times for 57 laps at Texas and battled eventual winner Billy Boat for three-fourths of the race, but a split water tank on his radiator put him in the pits after 176 laps. He placed 14th and earned 19 points. Meanwhile, Sharp never led a lap and lost one but plugged along for a rewarding fifth place in the Delphi Automotive Systems Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear owned by Tom Kelley.

That finish delivered 30 points. So Sharp came out of the two races gaining 24 points on Stewart to earn the tie for the lead position in the standings and the Pep Boys Million bonus at the end of the season.

Sharp, a native of E. Norwalk, Conn., thinks durability of parts and pieces will determine the third Pep Boys IRL champion. He shared the initial three-race title in 1996 with Buzz Calkins.

"I certainly think reliability will play a vital factor," Sharp said. "We're never going to know until the last race how the reliability is going to play out, how the speed is going to play out. It is important to score points.

"We had a sixth and a fifth in not very good races. My team is ecstatic. I think we have better races to come ... better races for me and better races for my team."

Sharp, who won in February on the mile at Phoenix, hopes to become a two-time champion at New Hampshire. Sharp provided A.J. Foyt with his first victory as solely a car owner to start the 1996-97 IRL season in August 1996, winning on the track that he calls "a unique mile."

He notes that the 1.058-mile track has very long straightaways and tight corners. Instead of being an oval that allows flat-out driving, this one requires braking entering the turns.

"When you do that the (car) loads change," he said. "That brings a new element into the race.

"You have to slow pretty well in Turn 1 and Turn 3. You come all the way off the gas pedal and get your foot on the brake for a second."

Sharp feels confident entering the race because crew chief Mike Horvath has a good handle on the setups for the 1-mile tracks.

Sharp, son of six-time SCCA national road-racing champion Bob Sharp (he attends all of his son's races), considers the earlier victory at NHIS, his first in an Indy-type car, a highlight of his career.

"It was a very strange weekend," he said. "We weren't very competitive. Then before the race we changed everything and hit it pretty close. I charged throughout and kept coming back and coming back.

"Those are the days that are fun, when you don't think you're going to win and end up winning."

That victory in a turbocharged car and the win at Phoenix in the normally aspirated car put Sharp alongside Arie Luyendyk and Buddy Lazier as the only drivers to win in both IRL formulas. The league switched from turbocharged to normally aspirated engines in January 1997.

But the period between the two victories was not the best of times.

Sharp crashed during practice at Indy in 1997 and suffered a concussion that eliminated him from the race. He returned in late June at Pikes Peak and was the surprise pole winner. But he spun and backed into the Turn 2 wall on the race start and suffered another concussion. That ended his season.

"I felt fine two days out of the hospital in Colorado," Sharp said. "Then it was more about what the doctors said, having patience and waiting for it to heal. With both concussions, I never had headaches or dizziness.

"What was hardest was watching someone else in the car I had. I had to sit on the sidelines and watch."

Foyt decided to release Sharp at the end of the season. Sharp quickly signed on as Mark Dismore's teammate with Kelley Racing, a new team based in Fort Wayne, Ind. Sharp was faster than the track record during a preseason test session in January at Orlando, Fla. Then he drove to sixth place in the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway won by Stewart.

"There were so many rumors, so many questions," he said of his absence from racing during the second half of last year.

Sharp is trying to answer them all this season.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Buzz Calkins , Eddie Cheever , Buddy Lazier , Scott Sharp , Arie Luyendyk , Billy Boat , Mark Dismore , A.J. Foyt