IRL: Phoenix: Event preview

ALL EYES ON HORNISH HEADING INTO PHOENIX PHOENIX, Tuesday, March 5, 2002 - When Sam Hornish Jr. won the Indy Racing League event last March at Phoenix International Raceway, few had any idea that victory would launch the most dominant season by...

ALL EYES ON HORNISH HEADING INTO PHOENIX

PHOENIX, Tuesday, March 5, 2002 - When Sam Hornish Jr. won the Indy Racing League event last March at Phoenix International Raceway, few had any idea that victory would launch the most dominant season by any driver in IRL history.

After all, the win was Hornish's first career victory in his first race with Pennzoil Panther Racing. Even though he led 140 of the 200 laps at PIR, there were still 12 races remaining in the season.

Now everyone knows better.

Hornish returns to Phoenix International Raceway this year as the undisputed king of Indy Racing. He never trailed in the point standings last year after his season-opening victory at PIR, clinching the Indy Racing League title with one race to go, and recorded three victories and 11 top-five finishes in 13 races.

The winning beat went on for Hornish during this year's season opener March 2. He dominated the 20th Anniversary Grand Prix of Miami after starting from the MBNA Pole, leading 166 of 200 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone en route to an easy victory. Hornish led the entire field by nearly 1½ laps at one point.

So there's no question that Hornish is the favorite to win the Bombardier ATV Copper World Classic Indy 200 on March 17 this year at PIR. Sam is the man of the moment in the Indy Racing League, a moment that never has evaporated since he produced the first victory of his career last year.

And that moment could continue during the Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200, which will be televised live on ABC at 4 p.m. (EST) March 17.

The tricky 1-mile oval is one of Hornish's favorite tracks. It places a premium on driver skill, especially when passing in traffic, and on car setup. Perhaps no team in the Indy Racing League has a better handle on car setup right now than Pennzoil Panther Racing, based on Hornish's blitzing of the field at Homestead-Miami.

But there are many drivers and teams ready to challenge Hornish and Pennzoil Panther Racing at Phoenix.

Powerful Marlboro Team Penske produced a strong showing at Homestead-Miami in its first race as a full-time Indy Racing League team, as Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves finished second and third, respectively, in their Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone entries.

And unlike some tracks this season, the Penske duo has experience at PIR in an Indy Racing car. Both competed in the IRL race last March on the desert oval. 2001 Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves led once for four laps before engine failure relegated him to an 18th-place finish, and de Ferran led once for three laps before his day ended in a multi-car accident on Lap 77.

So both Marlboro Team Penske drivers will seek redemption from last year's race and to gain ground on Hornish in the points this year at Phoenix.

Another high-profile, two-car team looking for a strong finish is Kelley Racing. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. finished 19th in the No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone and teammate Scott Sharp 20th in the No. 8 Delphi Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone in the season opener at Homestead-Miami.

Sharp has winning experience at PIR. He has recorded four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix, including a victory in 1998.

Another driver seeking to rebound at Phoenix is Buddy Lazier, 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2000 Indy Racing League champion. Lazier finished a disappointing 22nd earlier this month at Homestead-Miami after oil pressure problems in his No. 91 Coors Light Life Fitness Tae-Bo Delta Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone ended his day early.

Lazier knows how to win at Phoenix. He triumphed the hard way in 2000 at PIR, starting 26th and last before showing equal measures of patience and speed to record an improbable victory.

Like Lazier, former Phoenix resident Eddie Cheever Jr. also was plagued by misfortune in the season opener and needs a strong finish at Phoenix.

1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever was nudged into the outside retaining wall on Lap 3 by his rookie teammate, Tomas Scheckter, at Homestead-Miami. His No. 51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone was too damaged to continue.

Unfortunately for Cheever, PIR hasn't been one of his best tracks. His best Indy Racing finish at Phoenix is 10th in 1998 and 2000. But mechanical problems and accidents have been the biggest obstacles in the past. Speed and racecraft are not a problem, as Cheever led 41 combined laps in three races at PIR between 1998-2000.

The Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 arguably is the biggest race on the calendar outside of the Indianapolis 500 for Billy Boat and the CURB/Agajanian/Boat Indy Racing team.

Boat is a Phoenix native and resident, and his team is based in the Valley of the Sun. He has a superb Indy Racing record at PIR, with four top-six finishes in as many starts. All that's lacking on his Indy Racing record at PIR is a victory, something he hopes to add in the No. 98 CURB Records Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone on March 17.

There's another Arizona tie in the field. Billy Roe, driver of the No. 81 Sign-A-Rama/Zali Racing/American Dream Mortgage G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone, lives in Gilbert, Ariz.

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BOMBARDIER ATV COPPER WORLD INDY 200 NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) Sunday, March 17. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at noon (MST) March 16.

Practice sessions start at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. March 15, 9 a.m. March 16 and 10 a.m. March 17.

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On the air: The Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 will be televised live on ABC at 4 p.m. (EST) Sunday, March 17. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised at noon (EST) March 17 on ESPN2.

The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a pre-race show at 3:30 p.m. (EST). The March 17, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. An MBNA The Pole qualifying highlights show will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m.

The (EST) March 16 area affiliate is KMVP-AM 860 in Phoenix.

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Tickets: Tickets for the Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 are available now by calling (602) 252-2227, at www.phoenixinternationalraceway.com <http://www.phoenixinternationalraceway.com> or at the Phoenix International Raceway ticket office located at the Arizona Center, 3rd Street and Van Buren, in downtown Phoenix.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Buddy Lazier , Billy Boat , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Billy Roe , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske