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Friday, December 13, 2002
Not dominating, but Gil has been the best
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online
The "Dog Days of Summer" mean that more than half of the Indy Racing League season is behind us. With six races remaining, the chase for this year's title shapes up as a Marlboro Team Penske vs. Pennzoil Panther tussle with Felipe Giaffone and Airton Dare playing "wild card" roles.
Through the first nine races, there have been outstanding performances, disappointing ones, teams on the rise, rookie runs and fantastic finishes. Our first half report follows.
BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE:
When Marlboro Team Penske announced its intentions to compete fulltime in the IRL this season, many feared that Penske would swoop in and dominate the series. Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran have accounted for three wins and a host of podium finishes, but they have not swept the series.
De Ferran, however, has produced the best overall performance. He has cobbled together seven top-five finishes, including his first career IRL win at Pikes Peak. Nazareth, Indy and Richmond also found the current CART champ contending for Victory Lane.
Rumors have abounded that de Ferran longs for a return to road racing and speculate that he will leave Penske at the end of his contract. The surprise is genuine when you ask de Ferran about the rumors. The denial is sincere. Gil says that he enjoys the IRL and has no intention of abandoning the series -- or Penske -- in the near future.
BEST ROOKIE PERFORMANCE:
|Gil de Ferran led a Penske 1-2 punch in Colorado.|
The Bombardier Rookie of the Year award goes to the first-year IRL driver who enjoys the best season. Laurent Redon has that award in his sights and was considered for this category.
To me, though, performance includes more than just finishing spots. That is why, in my opinion, Tomas Scheckter wins this first-half award, and hands down. Scheckter started the season on shaky ground. He was quick, but he was also too aggressive. It cost him -- and others -- strong finishes when the South African would end up on the hook of a wrecker after being too aggressive.
"I have learned that to finish first, you first must finish," chuckled Scheckter just before the start of the Kansas race.
Tomas again led much of the race as he did in Indy and Texas, only to end up in the wall.
"All I think about is that day," he says. "Maybe I think about it too much."
When I arrived at Texas Motor Speedway, old friend and TMS GM Eddie Gossage collared me, "What's this describing the racing at Texas as 'Fontana-like'? We have the best IRL races and this time will be more of the same."
Boy was Eddie correct.
Jeff Ward's razor-thin win over Al Unser Jr. was absolutely the best of this season and arguably the best in IRL history.
BEST SECOND HALF POTENTIAL:
Every team would like to get selected for this, but Giaffone and his Hollywood-Mo Nunn Team wins it based upon their steady progression up the ladder. Giaffone is very close to snaring his first win. We saw Ward and Dare earn their first victories this season and Giaffone is not far behind.
When he and Castroneves were youngsters racing karts in Brazil, they often were found fighting for the win. It would not surprise me to see these two back at it in Indy Cars.
MOST FRUSTRATING SEASON:
It didn't take long for Jaques Lazier to show us that he and Team Menard were a force to be reckoned with. His thrilling tire-rubbing duel with Sam Hornish Jr. at Fontana had all of us circling the Indianapolis 500.
We all thought that, come Indy time, this team would get their first "500" win and Jaques would join his brother Buddy on the Borg-Warner trophy. A broken back as a result of a crash at Nazareth scrapped those predictions and left Lazier in a back cast and Menard searching for the competitive chemistry that Lazier brought to the team.
Lazier insists he will return to the cockpit before season's end. He is shooting for a defense of his win at Chicagoland.
Greg Ray went into the 2002 campaign signed to drive for Kelley Racing and reunited with his cousin Thomas. By the time we got to the season opener, Ray was ride-less and Knapp was weeks away from leaving Kelley.
Greg finally got together with fellow Texan A.J. Foyt and brought Thomas on board. His results have been mixed. A good run at Richmond led one to think that maybe things had turned around for the affable '99 IRL champ. Then Ray arrived at Kansas without Knapp and his bad luck returned. Oil pressure issues sidelined him after completing only 167 laps.
It would be easy to say it was the protest and subsequent appeal by Team Green of Castroneves' Indianapolis 500 victory. There is no question that if Redon and Buddy Lazier had not crashed in the final laps of the race, Tracy's face would be set to join others as winning visages on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Instead, he joins a long list of drivers (like Eddie Sachs, Lloyd Ruby and Scott Goodyear) who came close to winning the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" only to have Lady Luck frown upon them.
But the "500" winner story wasn't the biggest story of this season so far. Instead it was the announcement that Honda would join Toyota and Chevrolet as engine suppliers for the IRL starting in 2003.
Honda was all but set to leave U.S. Indy Car racing and showcase its wares on the Formula One circuit. Now, most likely because of the spirited rivalry between them and Toyota, they will stay stateside and bring their engines, marketing and sponsorship dollars to the IRL.
Airton Dare claims his first IRL victory amidst late-race controversy.
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