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The IRL hits the real portion of its schedule
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

I have always maintained that there are three distinct seasons within the 15-race IRL series: Pre-Indy, post-Indy and of course, the Indianapolis 500.

Pre-Indy, as far as the key combatants for the IRL championship, has pretty much unfolded as most expected at the top. The battle between Roger Penske's Marlboro drivers and Pennzoil Panther has captured much of the series' attention. But contrary to many IRL detractors' predictions, Penske's guys have not come in and decimated the League's longtime supporting teams.

Gil de Ferran
Gil de Ferran and his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves have not been able to dominate the IRL.
There have been some disappointing performances though, from teams that were expected to challenge both Penske and Pennzoil. When Sam Hornish Jr. was asked about the biggest challengers for his IRL crown, he included Jaques Lazier and Jaques' older brother Buddy.

Jaques' Team Menard seemed back on track after finishing second at Fontana and qualifying third at Nazareth. A rookie mistake by Tomas Scheckter ended up putting the rookie and Lazier into a Pennsylvania Hospital. Lazier suffered a lower spinal fracture and a concussion while Scheckter suffered a lung contusion and a concussion.

Buddy Lazier's Coors Light Team has only been able to muster a pair of seventh place finishes (Phoenix and Fontana) along with a 22nd in Miami's season opener and a 23rd due to an accident at Nazareth.

Infiniti's engine program is still a work in progress. While Eddie Cheever Jr.'s Red Bull team remains the lead developer, rookie Laurent Redon's third at Fontana indicates that the Nissan program is peaking just in time for the "Indianapolis" segment of the season. But Chevy will not go quietly. Development of the bowtie's generation 2 and 3 versions of the GM purpose built powerplant has been met with some hiccups, but Indy is the ultimate prize and everything leading up to Indy is just an opening act.

That's why the success of Scott Sharp at Nazareth is so important. Kelley Racing has struggled through the first part of the '02 season. Publicly, Kelley's guys have kept a positive attitude, but it was evident that their slow start was troublesome.

It's been fascinating to watch Sharp and his new teammate Al Unser Jr. Sharp has a score to settle at Indy. A mistake cost Sharp his best opportunity to win the Indy 500 last year when his Delphi Dallara was clearly the toast of the field. The Norwalk, Conn., native won the pole and then squandered his edge spinning on the first lap of the race.

As the days have gotten closer to the opening of Indy, Sharp's demeanor has undergone a startling transformation. The often jovial, smiling Sharp started to look distant. He was slow with a quip. Instead, you could see a focus developing. In Nazareth's Victory Lane, Sharp admitted that the "500" was on his mind.

"Now I feel like it's (last year's Indy faux pas) all behind me. I'm just excited for May. It's my favorite track. I can't wait to get back May 6th, May 5th, whatever opening day is."

Unser wants Indy just as badly as his teammate. The 40-year-old's legacy centers around Indy just like it did for his father and uncle Bobby. After spending an offseason wondering if he would have a winning entry for the 86th running of the 500, the two-time winner keeps pushing his Corteco team towards the Borg-Warner prize.

The Indy Racing League's opening act has left the stage. The spotlights have been lowered and the clock is ticking for the headliner. I can't wait for Tom Carnegie to intone. "The track is now open for practice!"

Post-Indy is too far on the horizon for me to pay attention to. Besides, It is all about Indy. Always has been and always will be. Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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