Cheever takes Infiniti's first win

Eddie Cheever was getting sick and tyred of being asked when the Nissan Infiniti engine was going to finally win a race in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series

Cheever takes Infiniti's first win

Cheever decided to answer that question himself with a decisive victory in Sunday's Radisson 200 IRL race at Pikes Peak International Raceway.

Cheever took the lead for good on the 172nd lap and led the remainder of the 200-lap race to give the Infiniti Indy V8 its first ever victory in Indy car racing.

"I gave the Oldsmobile Aurora engine its first win and now we have the first one for Infiniti," said Cheever, who won the 1997 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World - the first race with the normally aspirated engine formula. "I had such a big advantage today, it was unreal. Once we got the car working properly, it was great.

"The next question is when is Infiniti going to win the championship?"

Cheever may have taken a big step toward answering that question with his victory on the 1.0-mile oval. By winning his first race of 2000, his fourth career victory in the IRL, Cheever has taken over the lead in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

Buddy Lazier entered the race at the IRL points leader, but his engine blew up on the very first lap, dropping him to last place in the 26-car field. With Cheever winning, he now has a 176-168 lead over Lazier in the battle for the points title.

He also became the sixth different winner in the six IRL races this season.

The win was worth $124,400 and Cheever won with an average speed of 135.230 miles per hour in front of a crowd of 30,000.

"We have worked very hard with Nissan Infiniti to get to this point," Cheever said. "I was looking forward to a race with Lazier, but he had a problem. I'm sure we have a long way to go to the end, but I am so happy and so honoured to have won with this engine."

Cheever defeated Brazilian rookie Airton Dare in a race that ended up caution. Before that, he led by more than 12 seconds. Scott Sharp was third followed by Mark Dismore and Donnie Beechler.

The race ended under caution when Beechler was attempting to pass Sharp for third place on the 198th lap. Beechler went to the high side with Al Unser Jr's lapped car in the middle and Sharp on the inside. All three headed into the first turn, but Beechler's wheel touched a wheel on Unser's car, sending both into the wall.

The yellow flag waved and Cheever was able to cruise home as the winner.

"I didn't have anything for Eddie," Dare said. "I was more worried about the guy behind me (Sharp) because I knew I couldn't catch Eddie."

Cheever started 10th in a race that was paced by the only other driver with an Infiniti engine, Robbie Buhl. The winner of this year's Indy 200 at Walt Disney World took the lead at the green flag when he passed the pole winner, Greg Ray. Lazier's engine blew up on the first lap but the race stayed green until lap six when rookie Sarah Fisher and Billy Boat both spun in the first turn.

"I touched another car and things don't go well when you touch," Fisher said. "I feel really bad for the team. The guys did a great job. I was a lot looser than the car was all week, but that had nothing to do with the crash."

The green flag waved on lap 16 and Buhl remained in front until the 61st lap, when his engine blew up on the fourth turn.

"There was no indication when the motor let go," Buhl said. "Everything has been going great with the Infiniti, this is just part of the learning curve.

"It's not too often you get a race car like that and I think every pit stop, we would have made it better. It really hurts us for the points race. Eddie Cheever is the guy who deserves to get Infiniti it's first win, but we did everything we could to beat him to the punch."

Ray dropped out of the race on the 96th lap when he crashed in the fourth turn, dropping the defending IRL champion to 19th in the season point standings.

At the halfway point, Sharp was in the lead ahead of Cheever. Sharp was setting a fast pace and Cheever noticed Sharp was leaving a trail of rubber on the track which meant he was abusing the tyres. So rather than push the issue, Cheever decided to back off and let Sharp wear out his tyres.

"I said, `Go get 'em, Cowboy,'" Cheever said. "He was either going to lap us or the race would come back to us and it did."Cheever took the lead for the first time when he passed Sharp in the fourth turn on lap 134. He stayed in front until he made his pit stop 10 laps later.

Cheever would regain the lead when he passed Stephan Gregoire on lap 171. From there, Cheever was in control of the race.

"I had a very difficult beginning of the race, my car was loose," Cheever said. "I couldn't run well in traffic. We made some changes this morning. When we came in for the second set of tyres, we made some changes and I could see everybody's cars were getting loose late in the run. That is when I made that run on Sharp. When I came in for the last pit stop, my car was impeccable.

"I kept expecting somebody to come charging through, but they didn't. The car was great in traffic in the end. It all came down to handling and consistency."

Cheever switched from Oldsmobile Aurora to the Infiniti engine before the 1999 Indianapolis 500. Since that time, Cheever has raised the level of competition for the engine and has completed the most laps of any driver in the series this season with 1,207.

"I believe the Infiniti is a very, very good race engine," Cheever said. "It is very good in traffic. We work on a torque curve that allows you to get under somebody and pass them under acceleration. We had some very difficult times, but we have finished every race we have entered this year.

"Consistency is the biggest improvement we have had this year."

Cheever believed it was a hard race with lots of different battles throughout. He was impressed with Beechler's race before he crashed at the end.

"I really had an uneventful race," Cheever said. "The last 50 laps, I was having to play games with myself to stay on the ball. I was just trying to go as fast as I could and I was acting like it was an engine test to keep myself focused.

"It's great to be leading the championship."

Cheever is hoping to continue a trend that could end with the IRL title. The Radisson Indy 200 winner has won the IRL championship since the inaugural race in 1997. Tony Stewart won here and won the title in 1997, Kenny Brack turned the trick in 1998 and Greg Ray in 1999.

"That's one tradition I don't want to break," Cheever said.


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