Already entrenched in IRL history, Buddy Lazier clinched his first season championship today (Sunday) in the Excite 500, a race won by Scott Goodyear in dramatic fashion.
Lazier needed to finish no worse than 14th to secure the title. He already held the distinction of winning the pole for the first-ever IRL race and the first Indianapolis 500 of the IRL era in 1996.
"This is huge," Lazier said. "This is really big. When you win the Indy 500, it takes nearly a year for it to sink in. It's such a huge feat. It starts to justify this crazy passion that becomes a career. All of the sudden, when you win the Indy 500, it solidifies you and makes your career respectful.
"I've never won a championship until today, so it's going to be interesting when this sinks in, how it feels. Winning the Indy 500 is a very hard thing, and it's huge. I would have to say that the championship is just below it. I can't think of anything that's even close to either one. This has been a long time coming. This is the culmination of years of hard work. I'm hoping this the beginning of great things to come."
An exciting eight-lap dash to the checkered flag involving Goodyear, Eddie Cheever and Billy Boat was open-wheel racing at its finest as the cars raced inches apart at nearly 220mph. With three laps remaining, Goodyear and Boat were side-by-side on the rear of Cheever's car. Cheever tried to block both cars before Goodyear was able to pull alongside and take the lead going into the first turn with two laps to go.
Goodyear held off Cheever and Boat to win in his final race for Pennzoil Panther Racing, defeating Cheever by .140 seconds. Boat was third, followed by Lazier and Eliseo Salazar.
It was the fastest race in IRL history as Goodyear won at an average speed of 175.276mph. He earned $123,700.
"I am obviously very pleased," Goodyear said. "This was probably a great show for the fans. I dealt with some traffic there for a little while, which didn't help. But the guys game me a good car.
"I was trying to save tyres near the end and the restart really helped us. We tried everything. We went high, we went low. It was really wheel to wheel. We kept working Eddie Cheever. It's nice to go wheel to wheel with someone you can trust."
Greg Ray started on the pole but immediately encountered problems when the green flag dropped to start the race. That allowed Goodyear and Al Unser Jr. to rocket past Ray entering the first turn as Ray fell back down the field.
Unser held a big lead by the third lap and Ray had dropped to 25th place by lap 10. He later dropped out and finished last in the 28-car field.
Unser was in front until Goodyear passed him on lap 34. The first caution flag waved on lap 69 because of a stalled car at the entrance to pit lane. Three laps later, the green flag waved and Unser was in front of Goodyear and Lazier.
The top three cars were involved in a tight battle on lap 76, with Goodyear and Lazier racing side-by-side. Robbie Buhl and Cheever decided to join the battle, thrilling the estimated 60,000 crowd at Texas Motor Speedway.
"There were times out there I thought Buddy Lazier was nuts," Goodyear said. "It wasn't four abreast like we had out there in the first race this year and when that happens, everybody knows the low line is the place to be. A couple of times, we were down on the grass. I was surprised that Buddy was that aggressive. He drove as hard as he could.
"Sometimes, trying to stay out of trouble doesn't work, and maybe it's better to go out there and just run your race."
Unser and Goodyear traded the lead in the middle portion of the race as the top five cars were involved in a draft that looked more like a NASCAR Winston Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I thought my race might end early when Al Unser Jr. took me down real low at the start," Goodyear said. "But we recovered and really ran great all day."
Cheever was able to blast his way into the lead on lap 122 and stayed in front until pitting on lap 143. Unser pitted one lap later, with Lazier and Goodyear following on lap 145.
Another caution flag waved on lap 145 with Goodyear leading Cheever, Unser and Lazier. Unser, who led the most laps in the race, dropped out during that caution when the clutch failed on his car. Buhl, another driver battling for the lead throughout, also dropped out with mechanical problems.
Lazier decided to stay on the track during the caution period while the rest of the leaders pitted. He was leading when the green flag waved on lap 161 and was followed by Cheever and Goodyear. Cheever caught Lazier one lap later but was unable to pass for the lead.
Lazier officially clinched the championship 18 laps from the finish when it was apparent Goodyear could not be the lap leader in the race.
"It really made me feel good to know we had won because that left me free to really go out and try to win the race," Lazier said. "When they radioed that I won the championship, I radioed back, `You mean if I come back with no wheels, we still win the championship?' They said, yes.
"I don't know if I could have won the race. We did make a hard charge."
The caution flag waved on lap 192 when rookie Zak Morioka crashed in the second turn. That allowed Lazier to pit for the final time on lap 195, dropping him to fourth place.
The green flag waved on lap 200 with Cheever leading Goodyear, Boat and Lazier. Those drivers battled it out over the final eight laps with Goodyear coming out on top.
Goodyear may have won the race, but Lazier drove to the title by driving like a champion. He didn't hold anything back and cruise to victory, he floored the accelerator and won it in a blaze of glory.
"Buddy won a couple of races this year and we won one," Goodyear said. "We had a couple races this year that didn't go very well. In the end result, I'm glad that he won it because he drove like a champion."
Pos Driver Chassis-Engine Team Avg Speed
1 Scott Goodyear Dallara-Oldsmobile Panther Racing 209.940mph
2 Eddie Cheever Jr Dallara-Nissan Team Cheever 209.035 mph
3 Billy Boat Dallara-Oldsmobile Team Pelfrey 208.993 mph
4 Buddy Lazier Dallara-Oldsmobile Hemelgarn Racing 208.520 mph
5 Eliseo Salazar G-Force-Oldsmobile A.J.Foyt Enterprises 208.478 mph
6 Donnie Bleecher Dallara-Oldsmobile Cahill Auto Racing 207.520 mph