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Comments for Texas [1st] and Pikes Peak 2000 -- written July 2, 2000
Congratulations to Eddie Cheever, who posted his fourth IRNLS career win at Pikes Peak, and to Scott Sharp, who scored his fifth at Texas. Sharp's win made him the all-time IRNLS leader in wins, pulling out of tie with two drivers not currently active in the series -- Arie Luyendyk, who is retired, and Kenny Brack, who is racing in CART this year. Cheever's win the following weekend brought him into that tie to take Sharp's place. Of course the most significant aspect of Cheever's win is that it was also the first win for the Infiniti engine. Although they have long been a force in sports-car racing, the Nissan program has had an uphill struggle in open-wheel racing, and in fact their win with Cheever at Pikes Peak was not only their first win in the IRNLS, but their first win in the entire history of Indy car racing. The Oldsmobile Aurora engine's winning streak was broken at 34 races; the last time prior to Pikes Peak that the Aurora didn't win, that was because it wasn't yet legal -- in 1996, when the old-car formula and the turbo engines were still in effect. Infiniti becomes only the third engine make to win an IRNLS race; besides Aurora, the only other engine to win in the IRNLS series was the Ford Cosworth turbo engine which won all five of the events run under the old-car formula in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. (Recall that these were all in calendar year 1996; the last two races that year counted towards the 1997 season.) And there was a certain amount of poetic justice in Cheever posting the win, since as Eddie himself informed us from Victory Lane, he was also the driver who gave Aurora its first win in 1997. This has certainly been a remarkable year for breakthroughs in Indy car racing; the Riley & Scott IRNLS chassis make posted its first win at Phoenix this year, and a few weeks ago the Toyota CART engine program scored its first victory in that series with Juan Montoya at Milwaukee.
It's rather stunning to realize that G-Force had three victories in the first four races this year, while Dallara through Indy had fewer wins than Riley & Scott (one vs. zero). There was a lot of speculation about the rather strange "Batmobile" design of the G-Force this year. It seems to have done the job in terms of winning, but there doesn't seem to be a common perception among teams that it is better than the Dallara (unlike in some years past, where one chassis or the other was widely believed to be superior). So what is the straight story? I computed some averages for the two chassis makes this year:
Average starting position: 12.6
Average finishing position: 14.4
Average percentage of races completed: 76.4%
Total laps led: 592
Average starting position: 16.1
Average finishing position: 14.6
Average percentage of races completed: 79.8%
Total laps led: 524
The two chassis makes do appear about equal in how they are finishing races, so the conventional wisdom is supported. (For comparison: last year, the Dallara was widely held to be superior, and this was supported by the numbers. The average finishing positions were 13.5 for Dallara vs. 14.8 for G-Force.) The difference in starting position average is rather startling, but as has often been observed, starting position in an oval race isn't necessarily all that meaningful, and anyway it doesn't seem to have an effect on the other numbers. (It could be accounted for by the observation that two of the consistently best-qualifying teams in the IRNLS, Menard and Kelley, run Dallaras. Of course, this does raise a cause-and-effect paradox...) A microcosm of this can be seen in the fact that at Pikes Peak Robbie Buhl led 61 laps and Cheever led 39; Buhl ran G-Force while Cheever was in a Dallara, but both had the Infiniti engine and together they led exactly half of the race.
Weird Science Dept.: Long-time readers of this column, back when it was published as a mailing on IRList, probably know that for some reason strange numerical coincidences seem to surround Stephan Gregoire. (For instance, there is the fact that his career best IRNLS finish is 4th, and he's done it four times.) Well, it's happening again: A look at the finish matrix contained in the current points chart shows that, in every second race this year, he has finished 8th. In the odd races he has finished 18th, 28th, and 11th (maybe he's trying to figure out how to get into a NASCAR race so he can finish 38th). All these 8's are a bit ironic considering that he drives car #7. When he posted several 4th-place finishes two years ago, he was driving for Chastain Motorsports, which ran car #77. In four of the six races this year, he has finished on the lead lap (at Phoenix), one lap down (at Indy), two laps down (at Pikes Peak), and three laps down (at Texas).
Looking ahead to Atlanta, I ran some stats to see who the IRNLS's best drivers have been on the high-banked superspeedways. The Atlanta race will be the 11th such race in IRNLS history, and among all drivers with at least three starts on this type of track, the all-time leader in average finish is Kenny Brack, who has two wins and six top-5s (in nine starts) for an average of 7.2 Second, and leader among IRNLS active drivers, is Davey Hamilton with an 8.4 average including a 2nd at Atlanta, and a 2nd and a 3rd at Texas (he has three 2nds in his IRNLS career). If this were last year I would now be writing about Hamilton's incredible skills for consistently high finishes and always being in contention for the championship. Unfortunately, he is currently having his worst year ever in the series; his 14th at Pikes Peak was his best finish of the season so far and only the second time he has been running at the finish. As a result he has lost the leads he once had in several career statistical categories including top-5 finishes and lead-lap finishes. Going back to the original subject, Scott Goodyear leads all IRNLS drivers in top-10 finishes on the high-bank superspeedways with 7, and in lead-lap finishes with 5. Besides Brack, only Scott Sharp with two wins has won more than once on these tracks. Tony Stewart leads all drivers in laps led in this category with 313 (although he never won a high-bank IRNLS race); Goodyear is second with 276 followed by Buddy Lazier with 196. Six drivers -- Cheever, Mark Dismore, Goodyear, Hamilton, Buddy Lazier, and Greg Ray -- have started all ten events.
While doing some research into consecutive starting streak records, I discovered something amazing that I wasn't aware of before: Greg Ray had a streak of 15 consecutive top-5 starts going back to the Las Vegas race in 1998. It was only done in this June, by Ray's poor standing in the points, when qualifying was rained out at Texas and the starting field was set by points, placing Ray 17th on the grid, his worst starting position during his tenure at Menard. (His worst ever was 30th, at Indy in 1997, but that was his first IRNLS start.) Even more surprising was the streak for consecutive top-10s: starting way back with the Dover 1998 race, Mark Dismore had started every IRNLS event in the top-10 until the streak was broken at Indy this year. (And had he been 0.400 sec faster in qualifying there, the streak would still be alive; by that margin he missed beating out Eddie Cheever for a top-10 starting spot and gridded up 11th, and he has made the top-10 in the two subsequent events.) Dismore's record streak encompassed 18 races of top-10 starts, a record not likely to be broken for a while.
Milestone starts: Pikes Peak was of course the 40th IRNLS start for Hamilton, who has started every race in the series' history. It was the 30th start for Buhl, Ray, and Jeff Ward. Texas was the 30th start for Billy Boat and the 5th for Sarah Fisher. (Pikes Peak was of course Fisher's 6th start; she has now surpassed Lyn St. James in career IRNLS starts, although St. James had at least five other Indy car starts in the pre-IRNLS era.) Assuming no drastic changes in the next few weeks, then Atlanta will be the 40th start for Eddie Cheever and Buddy Lazier, the 25th for Donnie Beechler and Tyce Carlson (tying them with Tony Stewart and Arie Luyendyk, pretty good company), th 20th for Jimmy Kite, the 15th for Robby McGehee, and the 10th for Jaret Schroeder (how many people realize he made his first IRNLS start in 1997?). Assuming that he continues to qualify like he has, Greg Ray will by the year's end be the IRNLS all-time leader in career poles; currently he stands at 8, one behind the leader Tony Stewart. (Ray is actually tied with Billy Boat, but it's now been ten races since Boat won a pole; ironically, that was at Atlanta last year.)
Final surprising note: Although there are 19 different drivers who have scored at least one win in IRNLS competition, only 11 drivers account for all poles won. Seven drivers -- Stewart, Ray, Boat, Luyendyk, Dismore, Lazier, and Sharp -- have won all but four of those poles, and these are the only drivers who have won more than one pole.