IRL: Texas postscript

Unser's win popular with fans, drivers Another thrilling Texas finish FORT WORTH, Texas, Monday, June 9, 2003 -- It was hard to find a person at Texas Motor Speedway who wasn't happy to see Al Unser Jr. drive his No. 31 Corteco ...

Unser's win popular with fans, drivers
Another thrilling Texas finish

FORT WORTH, Texas, Monday, June 9, 2003 -- It was hard to find a person at Texas Motor Speedway who wasn't happy to see Al Unser Jr. drive his No. 31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota/Firestone into Victory Lane at the Bombardier 500 on June 7.

In addition to the estimated 92,000 fans at TMS who were pleased with Unser's win, many pit crew members and drivers congratulated Unser as he drove on pit lane en route to the winner's circle.

Even Tony Kanaan, who lost to Unser by .0810 of a second in the race, seemed happy for two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Unser.

"He did a great job," Kanaan said. "Very clean, as always. I congratulate him for the win. It was a great fight."

It was Unser's third career IRL IndyCarTM Series win and his 34th Indy-style victory.

The last time Unser drove to victory carrying No. 31 was in 1994, perhaps the highest point of Unser's career. That year, driving for legendary Penske Racing, Unser won his second Indianapolis 500, won his second CART championship and won eight of 16 races. He is driving car No. 31 for the first time since that season.

But since 1994, Unser has had his share of ups and downs. He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1995 while still driving for Penske and did not return to Indy until 2000. Although he won four CART races in 1995, he went winless from his victory in August 1995 at Vancouver until his first IRL IndyCar Series victory in April 2000 at Las Vegas.

"When you're a driver, you won so much in the past and you go through a tough time and you struggle, people just hammer at you and say: 'Oh, he's done, he's old, he's this, he's that,'" Kanaan said. "It's not up to us to judge. This guy is very capable. He's proving that. It was a tough race, and he had a strong car, and he knew what he wanted. He has a lot of experience.

"You can't take for granted what this guy has done in the past and is still doing, still delivering. I'm really happy for him."

Unser climbed to second in IRL IndyCar Series standings, 26 points behind Kanaan, and seeks his first IRL IndyCar Series championship and his third Indy-style championship.

"There's been a lot of comebacks, great comebacks," Unser said. "Sure, we're a contender in this championship. The season isn't even half over yet. If we're in P2 (second place), there's a long way to go."

While Unser is the oldest driver in the series at age 41, age is no reason to count him out. His father, Al Unser, won the 1983 CART championship at age 44 and again won the CART championship two years later at age 46. That year he defeated Al Unser Jr., then 23, by just one point.

"As long as I keep doing this out here, then I'm going to keep doing it," Unser said. "I love racing. I love getting out, driving these single-seat, open-wheel cars at 220 miles an hour. I love doing it. I can't think of doing anything else. As long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing, and as long as I'm competitive, then I'm going to keep doing it because it's just too much dang fun out there."

***

Unser races clean, fair: Al Unser Jr. has been involved in some of the most exciting finishes in the history of IRL IndyCar Series history, and the Bombardier 500 continued that legacy. He defeated Tony Kanaan by .0810 of a second, the eighth-closest finish in the history of the series.

Unser lost the same race that year by just .0111 of a second to Jeff Ward, the third closest finish in IRL IndyCar Series history. Unser also lost the Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2002, falling .0024 of a second short to Sam Hornish Jr. in closest finish in series history.

Even Unser's first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1992 was a fantastic finish as he defeated Scott Goodyear by .043 of a second, the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.

And throughout all the close races in which Unser has been involved, he's made sure to drive fair. The same clean style was evident in the Bombardier 500, Kanaan said.

"I've known Al since the CART times," Kanaan said. "He's always been very clean. He's been the guy that's been around for a long time. Sometimes in a driver's meeting he gets up and says something. He says, 'Look, guys, let's take care of each other.'

"He's very clean. He would never do anything to hurt you at the racetrack, even if it's going to win. He could actually go wide and try to not put me right beside him. He's very fair. He's a very clean driver. I had no concern at all."

The feeling was mutual for Unser.

"I've raced against Tony for quite some time," Unser said. "There's been the gap there that I was over at IRL, and he was still racing CART. But I raced Tony in CART. He's a great race car driver. He's one of the world's best single-seat, open-wheel drivers, and it's an honor to run with him.

"He seems to be a loving guy and all that kind of stuff and genuinely cares about you off the racetrack and on the racetrack. And that's very important to drivers that are running wheel to wheel."

***

Another exciting Texas finish: The margin of victory between Al Unser Jr. and Tony Kanaan of .0810 of a second was the eighth finish in 12 IndyCar Series races at TMS with a margin of victory of less than a second.

"I was introduced to the Texas Motor Speedway in 2000," Unser said. "It was a great place. It still is a great place. It took us four years to finally win here, but it's sure special."

The last six IRL IndyCar Series events at TMS that have finished under green have enjoyed a margin of victory of less than a second, including the second-, third- and fourth-closest finishes in series history.

"We have been called the 'Second Home to the Indy Racing League,' but it's more than just words," said Eddie Gossage, TMS executive vice president and general manager. "It truly is a perfect fit for Texas Motor Speedway, its fans and the teams from the IRL.

"It was yet another classic finish and a great race all night long in front of one of the biggest crowds in American sports. We can't wait until the Oct. 11 IRL IndyCar Series season finale when all the teams come back to settle the national open-wheel driving championship in the Chevy 500."

***

Scheckter's tough ending, again: Tomas Scheckter dominated the Bombardier 500, leading 145 laps on the 1.5-mile oval, including the first 91. But Scheckter, driver of the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone, was assessed a drive-through penalty for leaving the pits with the fuel hose connected during his final stop on Lap 150.

Ventman Andy Natalie caught fire during the miscue, but it was extinguished immediately. Natalie was unhurt.

Scheckter's chances to charge toward eventual winner Al Unser Jr. then ended when he crashed hard into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 175. Sparks shot from the bottom of the car, indicating possible mechanical failure, before Scheckter careened toward the wall. He was unhurt.

Scheckter has led nearly 25 percent of the laps this season, leading 244 of a possible 1,000 laps. Last year, he led 443 of a possible 2,500 total laps in his 12 starts.

Despite leading 687 out of a possible 3,500 race laps (20 percent), Scheckter has only found Victory Lane once, in July 2002 at Michigan.

"I want to win one of these races that we lead laps and have the car to beat," Scheckter said. "I am sick of dominating races; I want to win."

Tony Stewart, the 1996-97 IRL IndyCar Series champion, holds the record for most laps led in a career with 1,515. He led 1,211 out of a possible 3,373 laps in his first 17 IRL IndyCar Series events.

Like Scheckter, Stewart led many laps but failed to win most of those races. Of the 14 races in which he led, Stewart won just twice.

***

Andretti on the sidelines: Michael Andretti has started to adjust to life without driving, watching the Bombardier 500 from the pits rather than from the cockpit of a car. Andretti retired following the 87th Indianapolis 500 on May 25 to concentrate co-ownership of Andretti Green Racing.

Andretti out of the cockpit was a rare sight. Andretti never missed an Indy-style event in his 20-year career other than his brief foray in Formula One in 1993.

"I'm a little bit of a fish out of water," Andretti said. "But I'm working on it."

Andretti's drivers, Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta and Dan Wheldon, finished second, fifth and 20th, respectively.

***

Bombardier 500 facts and figures:

*Al Unser Jr.'s margin of victory over Tony Kanaan was .0810 of a second, exactly six times the combined margin of victory of the two races he lost in 2002. He lost in June 2002 at TMS to Jeff Ward by .0111 of a second and lost to Sam Hornish Jr. in September 2002 at Chicagoland Speedway by .0024 of a second for a combined .0135.

*In five races thus far in 2003, there have been five different winners. Scott Dixon won at Homestead-Miami, Tony Kanaan at Phoenix, Scott Sharp at Motegi, Gil de Ferran at Indianapolis and Al Unser Jr. at Texas. In those five races, 12 different drivers have finished in the top five in at least one event.

*Buddy Lazier competed in his 74th IRL IndyCar Series event, extending his record. Scott Sharp moved in to second place behind Lazier with 71 starts. Sharp moved passed Eddie Cheever Jr., who is third with 70 starts.

*Tony Kanaan led only one lap in the Bombardier 500 but has led at least one lap in every IRL IndyCar Series event this season.

*The crowd for the Bombardier 500 was estimated at 92,000, the third-largest crowd for an IndyCar Series event at Texas Motor Speedway. The inaugural IndyCar Series event at TMS in June 1997 had an estimated crowd of 128,000, while the June 1998 event had an estimated crowd of 100,000.

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Tomas Scheckter , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Scott Goodyear , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Dan Wheldon , Chip Ganassi , Sam Hornish Jr. , Al Unser
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Team Penske