MADISON, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2001 - The Challenger vs. The Champion ... The Confident Phenom vs. The Cagey Vet ... The Rumble By The River. Call it what you want, but the battle for the Indy Racing Northern Light Cup between Sam ...
MADISON, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2001 - The Challenger vs. The Champion ... The Confident Phenom vs. The Cagey Vet ... The Rumble By The River.
Call it what you want, but the battle for the Indy Racing Northern Light Cup between Sam Hornish Jr. and Buddy Lazier has reached a boiling point and could get even hotter at the Gateway Indy 250 on Aug. 26 at Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis.
The 200-lap race on the unique, 1.25-mile oval just east of the Mississippi River starts at 2 p.m. (CDT) and will be televised live on ESPN. It's the 11th of 13 races this season in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.
Hornish has led the Indy Racing point standings since winning the first two races of the season in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. It's just the second season of Indy Racing for Hornish, 22, and his first with the elite Pennzoil Panther Racing team.
After the Casino Magic 500 on June 9 at Texas, Hornish held a 30-point lead over Eliseo Salazar in the standings. Defending Indy Racing champion Lazier was fifth, 70 points behind Hornish, in the No. 91 Tae-Bo/Coors Light/Delta Faucet Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.
But then Lazier went from the small dot in Hornish's rear-view mirror to a veritable tailgater in the standings with the hottest streak in Indy Racing history. Lazier has won four of five races since June 17 at Pikes Peak International Raceway to climb into second place, just 25 points behind Hornish.
"We're coming hard," Lazier said after his most recent win, Aug. 12 at Kentucky. "We're having a great second half. I think it's going to be real tight for the points battle. It's going to be close there at the end of the year."
Lazier's climb toward the top has been relentless yet different from last year, when he chased down 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. for the title.
1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Lazier lost the lead to Cheever last June when he finished last at Pikes Peak with engine failure. But Lazier regained the lead for good after finishing second at the next race, in July at Atlanta. Cheever suffered engine failure at that race.
This year has been different. There has been no flip-flop in the standings between the two combatants for the title, and mechanical failures have played little role since Lazier's hot streak started in June.
The championship chase this season has been a superb showdown and showcase of driving skill between two world-class drivers. During Lazier's streak of four victories and a fifth-place finish in the last five races, Hornish has finished second three times, third and sixth.
It's a tense duel; a classic, high-speed case of who will blink first.
Lazier and Hemelgarn Racing have title-winning experience from winning at Indy in 1996 and winning the Northern Light Cup last year. But Panther Racing has been a winning team in Indy Racing since its debut in 1998, and Hornish is showing no signs of cracking in his first major-league points chase.
"I go out there, every time I get in the car, I want to win a race," Hornish said after finishing third at Kentucky. "I'm going to push the car just as hard as if I was 200 points ahead or 200 points behind. It doesn't matter. I don't feel any pressure from any of the guys out there."
Maybe not. But there will be a big pack of drivers who are capable of pushing Lazier and Hornish for victory at Gateway.
Scott Sharp is a prime contender for victory at Gateway. He led the first 104 laps of the 200-lap race Aug. 12 at Kentucky and ended up second in the No. 8 Delphi Automotive Systems Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.
Sharp still has championship aspirations, as he is third in the standings, 88 points behind Hornish. But the math doesn't favor Sharp. A driver can score a maximum of 52 points per race, so with three races remaining, there are only 156 points available. Still, Sharp isn't giving up. "I've gone flat out, put the hammer down," Sharp said. "I will try to win a couple of these last races, as with them all, if I could. The points will work themselves out where they do."
Another driver with plenty of motivation to win at St. Louis is Robby McGehee, a St. Louis native. He would like nothing more than to earn his first Indy Racing victory at his home track in the No. 10 Cahill Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.
GATEWAY INDY 250 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Gateway Indy 250 starts at 2 p.m. (CDT) Aug. 26. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at noon (CDT) Aug. 25. Practice sessions start at 10:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. Aug. 24, and 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Aug. 25.
On the air: The Gateway Indy 250 will be televised live on ESPN at 3 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 26. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised live at 11 a.m. Aug. 26 on ESPN2.
MBNA Pole Qualifying will be televised at midnight (EDT) Aug. 25 on ESPN2.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 26, followed by the live race broadcast at 3 p.m. A qualifying wrap-up show will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 25. The area affiliates are KFNS-AM 590 and KFNS-FM 100.7, St. Louis.
The IMS Radio Network race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracing.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets for the Gateway Indy 250 are available by calling (866) 35-SPEED and online at www.gatewayraceway.com <http://www.gatewayraceway.com> .