Lazier Wins at Belterra Resort Indy

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — Buddy Lazier felt good about charging into the lead of the inaugural Belterra Resort Indy 300. However, he had no clue how tough it would be to hold it.

Problem pit stops and a faulty gearbox easily could have cost him the race and a commanding lead in the Indy Racing League series championship standings.

Instead, he was able to overcome those obstacles and several hard-charging drivers to take the checkered flag at the new Kentucky Speedway.

``Sometimes it's just your day,'' said Lazier, 32, who picked up the fourth win of his IRL career and became the first multiple winner in eight races this season.

``We marched our way to the front early, and then I had to fight the rest of the day to get back to the front of the field,'' he said after winning by 1.879 seconds — about 15 car-lengths — over pole-sitter Scott Goodyear. Rookie sensation Sarah Fisher led nine laps and finished a career-best third.

Lazier, who started seventh in the 27-car field, came in with a 23-point lead over Eddie Cheever. Now, Lazier has a 38-point edge over new runner-up Goodyear in the battle for the Northern Light Cup championship with one race remaining.

``By no means do we have this one wrapped up, but we do have an advantage,'' said Lazier, who won $126,300 while averaging 164.601 mph.

Lazier took the lead for good in his Hemelgarn Racing Dallara-Oldsmobile 31 laps from the end of the 200-lap race, moving to the front when Fisher made her final pit stop.

He then held off Goodyear while negotiating heavy traffic on the 1.5-mile oval. The key moment came on lap 194, when Lazier was able to lap sixth-place Jeff Ward and put some distance between himself and Goodyear.

``I owe a big thanks to Jeff Ward,'' Lazier said. ``At a critical time, he let me by him. He can be really hard to pass and that made a big difference.''

If not for a little luck, Lazier — the 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion — might not have been in position to win at all.

Lazier took the lead for the first time on lap 41 with a strong outside pass of rookie Sam Hornish Jr. But, during a series of pit stops by the leaders during a caution period, Lazier failed to get a full fuel load on his first stop and had to come in a second time, falling to 16th.

``I might have been too far away from the wall, so there was a problem when they stretched out the fuel line to hook it up to the car,'' Lazier said.

Lazier worked himself back up to eighth by the next round of pit stops, but wound up falling far behind again when his team failed to notify him soon enough to pit with the rest of the leaders.

``When the yellow came out, we didn't get the call that the pits were open and Buddy was already at the pit entrance, so he had to go all the way around again,'' team owner Ron Hemelgarn said. ``But the only thing you can do is rebound.''

As if those miscues weren't enough to give most drivers fits, Lazier lost control of his gearbox late in the race and nearly didn't finish.

``I swear this has never happened,'' Lazier, 32, said. ``I crossed the finish line and I literally broke the gearbox. It was my fault. I really abused it getting through traffic, downshifting and upshifting.

``I had to lift off in traffic and it would jump out of gear, and it was happening in the corners, which is the worst possible place. I got lucky because I was able to get it back in and still keep the momentum going. It could have broken at any time.''

Fisher, 19, said she was thrilled with her first podium finish and the first lead of her young IRL career.

``I got goose bumps,'' she said. ``It was awesome. But I had to keep calm because it wasn't the end of the race.''

The first of four caution flags — and the only crash of the day — came on the third lap as Eliseo Salazar, who jumped past Goodyear into the lead at the green flag, slammed together with Jeret Schroeder, who had moved from sixth to second.

As those two hit the wall, Al Unser Jr.'s car crashed hard trying to avoid Schroeder's car and Scott Sharp ran over debris and wound up spending a long period of time in the garage area for repairs.

The only injury reported was a contusion to Unser's right thigh.

A crowd announced at 61,214 had its biggest thrill when Hornish, whose team held him out of the morning warmup because they had only one engine available, got into a side-by-side battle for the lead with Jaques Lazier, Buddy's younger brother.

Cheever, who finished fourth, fell to third in the standings and now trails Lazier by 41 points with only the season finale Oct. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway remaining.

Each race in the IRL has a maximum of 55 points and Lazier can wrap up his first championship by finishing 13th or better at the Fort Worth track.

``It's been a slugfest with Buddy for most of the season, but now I'd say he has a pretty firm lock on the championship,'' Cheever said. ``Today was Buddy's day. He deserved to win.''