Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Date: Sunday, March 19, 2000
Start time: 2:10 PM MST
Weather: Mild, bright sun
IRL historical: #2 of 9 in 2000 season, IRL race #36 overall
Track historical: IRL race #5, Indycar race #58 at this track
Track configuration: 1-mile peculiar oval, flat track
Wing package: Short track
The first race of the newly re-christened Indy Racing Northern Light Series, after the new series sponsor, produced an historic and unexpected first win for the Riley & Scott chassis make. It certainly didn't look like in practice and qualifying, though; Buddy Lazier, despite his excellent run at Disney World, had terrible problems with an incorrigible car and qualified 24th, while Eddie Cheever decided he had his hands full with the Infiniti engine program and switched his chassis choice back to Dallara. The only other R&S entered was that of rookie Sarah Fisher with the team of Walker Racing (returning to the IRNLS after a four-year absence), and they were having teething problems. Greg Ray dominated practice and set a standard in qualifying that only the Kelley cars could even touch; Ray took the pole with a near-record 176 MPH lap, while of the other contestants only Dismore, Sharp, and Robby McGehee broke 173. A pleasant surprise in qualifying was Jaret Schroeder who put Larry Curry's Tristar car on the grid in fifth, that team's best qualifying performance to date. Lazier was so frustrated with his car that after qualifying his team decided to switch to a backup that had never turned a wheel on a track and wasn't even fully assembled yet. It proved to be a fortuitous move.
Race day dawned bright and sunny, a problem due to the amount of rubber left on the track by a program of NASCAR races the day before. The track was slick and many teams had severe pushes at the beginning of the race. On the start of the race Ray took a conservative line into turn 1; Dismore tried to dive under but got an unexpected thrill as his front wheels broke loose at the apex. He survive that, but soon began to fade due to a severe push and was shortly passed by Sharp and McGehee. Things remained this way until the leaders approached traffic on lap 14; Ray suddenly found that his car wouldn't handle in traffic and McGehee passed him for the lead with a very unusual outside move going into turn 3 on lap 18. Davey Hamilton, who had kept his streak of starting every IRL race alive with his signing by Team Xtreme the week before, was having severe handling problems and was fading rapidly, while Jimmy Kite, making his first start for Blueprint, retired early with engine failure. Meanwhile, Lazier was making up time rapidly (after having started last due to the car switch); by lap 24 he was up to 12th.
On lap 31, McGehee, feeling pressure from Sharp who had passed Ray for 2nd, spun and crashed in turn 2. The crash wasn't serious, but enough to eliminate the talented second-year driver. Most of the leaders pitted, but Cheever, rookie Sam Hornish, and Billy Boat (making a second start in his race-to-race deal with Pelfrey) inherited the first three positions. Sharp had the best pit stop despite a balky gearbox and came out in 4th. He immediately made this 3rd on the restart, passing Boat who was running in a 1999-spec Dallara. The race went green only a few more laps before Buzz Calkins spun and crashed in turn 3, bringing to an end his 12-race finishing streak which extended back to 1998. Calkins was taken out in an ambulance complaining of back pain, but X-rays proved negative, a relief after the back injuries at WDW. During the caution, Fisher made a pit stop for a sticking throttle; repairs to her car's throttle linkage would take 15 laps, but she turned in some significantly faster lap times afterward. The cleanup took a long a long time and several teams pitted at various points depending on how they thought their fuel strategy was going to work out. Cheever pitted on lap 46, handing the lead to Sharp; a few laps later Hornish gave up second place and pitted, moving Boat up to 2nd and bring Al Unser Jr. up into the top-10 for the first time in the race.
The caution was a long one and the green waved on lap 59 with Sharp leading Boat, Dismore, Ray, and Scott Goodyear; Schroeder, Donnie Beechler, Lazier, Robbie Buhl, and Unser filled out the top-10. 17 cars, essentially all that hadn't crashed or had mechanical problems, were still on the lead lap. On the green, Ray shot to 3rd, but other than that positions remained static until rookie Airton Dare encountered a bad push exiting turn 4 and slid into the wall on lap 77. During this caution Boat finally made his first pit stop, dropping out of the top-10; he was getting excellent fuel mileage and his team intended to make only one more stop.
Green flew on lap 86 with Sharp still leading. Cheever gained three places on the first lap, rising to 6th while complaining of a push. Cheever soon passed Schroeder for 5th, but after this positions up front remained static until a yellow flew on lap 99 for the stalled car of the luckless Tyce Carlson, who had been in the top-10 before his engine shut off due to a faulty cockpit switch. It required replacement and that put him out of contention. All of the top five made pit stops, bringing pit strategy into play again: Stephan Gregoire, Unser, Beechler, Boat, Buhl, and Lazier stayed out, taking over positions 1-6. Sharp and Ray had good stops but to their dismay emerged in 7th and 8th respectively, and mired well back in the lineup on the restart. This proved fatal for Ray's chances of winning when Bobby Regester (substituting for Jacques Lazier, who had been injured at Disney World) spun in front of him in turn 4 on the restart; Ray tried the high line but got clipped and spun into the wall.
Green flew again on lap 114 with Gregoire still leading and 14 cars still on the lead lap. Buhl had waited too late to make a pit stop and as a result he was just in front of the leaders and in danger of being lapped right after the restart. On lap 120 Dismore slowed on the backstretch with his engine losing power. The problem turned out to be damaged ignition wiring, which took many laps to replace; he would retire late in the race after picking up as many positions as he could in the time remaining. Meanwhile, Ronnie Johncox (making his first start with Byrd-McCormack) began a series of pit stops to remove debris caught under his engine cowl, which would cost him many laps. On lap 123 Gregoire had a 1 second lead on Unser, but Unser then picked up some time and, for the first time in his IRL career, he gained the lead on lap 128. Beechler was running well, holding third, and Lazier had advanced to fourth.
Most of the leaders definitely had one more stop to make, although Boat's team was reporting extraordinary fuel mileage and thought they could make it. The top four were all off sequence and couldn't go much past lap 150. Gregoire made the first move, pitting for fuel and tires on lap 141. Unser continued to advance, lapping Buhl before stopping on lap 150. But bad luck struck him almost immediately; as he was just leaving his pit, Hornish crashed in turn 2, somehow winding up in the emergency vehicle area behind the backstretch dogleg. No one was hurt but Greogire's and Unser's chances were severely damaged. The yellow allowed all the other leaders to pit; Lazier came out first but found himself behind Buhl, who had gotten his lap back when Unser pitted and chose to stay out for track position.
The following green didn't last long as Schroeder and Cheever had an incident in turn 3, with Schroeder's right front wing clipping Cheever's left rear wheel. The caution immediately came back out due to the debris. Cheever had to pit with a flat tire and lost a lap. Schroeder had more serious damage, needing a new nose and right front suspension pieces, ruining his excellent chances for a top-5 finish. Buhl, after deciding he couldn't go the rest of the distance on his remaining fuel, chose to pit, handing the lead to Lazier. Running behind him were Goodyear, Beechler, Eliseo Salazar, and Sharp; Unser and Gregoire had made up their laps but were running out of time. With the green on lap 168, Lazier was off and away while Goodyear in turn drove away from Beechler. These gaps held for a while, but by lap 185 things were getting interesting further back. Salazar caught Beechler and tried an outside pass on lap 188, but got into the marbles and fell back and in turn was challenged by Sharp. Meanwhile, Boat ran a quiet fifth while Gregoire headed a three-way duel for 6th with Buhl and Unser. Unser passed Buhl on lap 190, but lost the position four laps later when he got loose while challening Gregoire.
As the laps wound down, the Riley & Scott people found themselves in another familiar situation: would this lead stand up? Fortunately for them, unlike Disney World this time there was no trouble with lapped cars, and Lazier cruised to the first IRL win for the R&S chassis, followed by Goodyear. Beechler, after two years of mostly frustration and bad luck, had his second excellent finish in a row. Boat brought Pelfrey's 1999-spec car home fifth, while Unser finished on the lead lap of an Indy car race for the first time in recent memory. Schroeder, despite his problems, still bested his IRNLS career best finish with his 12th, surprassing a 14th from 1997.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 26 165.929 91 R/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 200 Running 45 50 2 7 171.649 4 D/A/F Scott Goodyear Panther 200 Running 40 3 11 170.891 98 D/A/F Donnie Beechler Cahill 200 Running 35 4 17 169.070 11 G/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 200 Running 32 5 3 174.529 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 200 Running 59 33 6 16 169.189 81 D/A/F Billy Boat Pelfrey 200 Running 28 7 9 170.940 24 G/A/F Robbie Buhl D&R 200 Running 5 26 8 12 170.729 7 G/A/F Stephan Gregoire Simon 200 Running 27 24 9 20 167.895 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 200 Running 22 22 10 8 170.981 51 D/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 199 Running 13 20 11 13 170.342 14 G/A/F Jeff Ward Foyt 194 Running 19 12 5 172.406 6 D/A/F Jaret Schroeder Tristar 185 Running 18 13 21 167.871 15 R/A/F Sarah Fisher Walker 183 Running 17 14 18 168.327 30 G/A/F Ronnie Johncox Byrd-McCor 181 Running 16 15 6 172.092 20 D/A/F Tyce Carlson Hubb-Immke 176 Running 15 16 2 175.910 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 157 Ignition 16 17 19 168.232 18 G/A/F Sam Hornish PDM 151 Crash T2 13 18 10 170.924 16 G/A/F Davey Hamilton Xtreme 139 Handling 12 19 1 176.566 1 D/A/F Greg Ray Menard 104 Crash T4 18 14 20 23 166.174 33 G/A/F Bobby Regester Truscelli 100 Crash T4 10 21 25 161.088 17 G/A/F Niclas Jonsson Nienhouse 85 Engine 9 22 24 164.519 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 74 Crash T4 8 23 15 169.292 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 43 Crash T3 7 24 4 174.258 5 G/A/F Robby McGehee Treadway 29 Crash T2 11 6 25 22 167.232 43 D/A/F Doug Didero MidAmerica 24 Engine 5 26 14 169.972 27 G/A/F Jimmy Kite Blueprint 14 Engine 4
The car #91 qualified 24th, but changed cars after qualifying. By rule, it was moved to 26th starting position.
Laps under green: 144 of 200 laps (77.0%)
Caution flags: 7 for 56 laps (23.0%)
#1: lap 31, crash (McGehee), T2, 9 laps
#2: lap 46, crash (Calkins), T3, 13 laps
#3: lap 77, crash (Dare), T4, 9 laps
#4: lap 99, stalled car (Carlson), FS, 6 laps
#5: lap 107, crash (Ray, Regester), T4, 7 laps
#6: lap 154, crash (Hornish), T2, 7 laps
#7: lap 163, debris, T4, 5 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 9, number of different leaders: 8
St: Ray 1-18
#1: McGehee 19-29
#2: Sharp 30-32
#3: Cheever 33-45
#4: Sharp 46-101
#5: Gregoire 102-128
#6: A. Unser 129-150
#7: Lazier 151-155
#8: Buhl 156-160
#9: Lazier 161-200
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 11 / 12.4
G-Force: 13 / 15.5
Riley & Scott: 2 / 7.0
Aurora: 25 / 13.6
Infiniti: 1 / 10.0
Firestone: 26 / 13.5