No Guarantees In Phoenix

It’s hard not to think of defending Indy Racing Northern Light Series champion and defending race winner Buddy Lazier as the favorite heading into Sunday’s season-opener at Phoenix International Raceway.

But, it’s even harder to consider a second-year driver with a new team and two drivers who haven’t even competed in the IRNLS as threats to win.

Well, welcome to the 2001 Indy Racing Northern Light Series season.

Sunday’s Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 in Phoenix is the first of 13 races and the first chance to see if Lazier’s Hemelgarn Racing team is still the team to beat.

Early signs suggest Lazier will be strong at Phoenix. At the Test in the West on Feb. 9 and 10, Lazier turned in the fifth-fastest lap of the open test. The performance has Lazier confident.

"We feel like it’s been a really productive offseason," said Lazier, a two-time winner last season. "We’ve learned a lot. The program, the racecar, everything has progressed. We’ve gained speed."

If Lazier has improved in the speed department, as his test speeds suggest, then Hemelgarn has worked on one of its weaknesses: qualifying. Last season, Lazier started in the Top 5 twice, both times based on points when qualifying was rained out. He gained just two top-10 starting positions based on speed.

At Phoenix, Lazier started last after he climbed into his backup car. He went on to win by more than four seconds.

"We know all eyes are on our performance," team owner Ron Hemelgarn said. "Last year, Buddy’s last-to-first finish was a very exciting performance for race attendees and TV viewers alike. Hopefully, we can start closer to the front and gain the same results."

If Lazier stumbles, sophomore Sam Hornish Jr. will likely be the driver to step up. At the Test in the West, Hornish turned in the second-fastest lap in the Pennzoil Panther Racing No. 4 that Scott Goodyear drove to a runner-up finish in the point standings and at Phoenix last season.

"I expect only good things," 21-year-old Hornish said. "I want to go out there and win. I think we’re capable of winning from the start."

Last season, Hornish finished 17th at Phoenix with underfunded PDM Racing. As the season progressed, however, Hornish improved. At the next to last race at Kentucky, he finished ninth and led 38 laps.

Al Unser Jr. is also in his second year of IRNLS competition. His Galles Racing Team expanded to a three-car effort in the offseason to accommodate rookies Casey Mears and Didier Andre.

Unser feels the youngsters’ addition makes the team stronger. If so, look for him to improve on his ninth-place finish at Phoenix last season.

"We can go to the race weekends, and we can try different things on different cars, different geometries during those sessions and try to get the most out of the whole team effort," said Unser, who led 22 laps at Phoenix last year. "Last year I came into the IRL, and the equipment was all-new to me. This year, I have a season of driving these cars under my belt, and I can read the cars better."

Unser placed ninth in the final point standings in his first year of IRNLS competition after leaving Roger Penske’s CART team.

Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves moved up to Penske’s team last season, and this year the team comes to Phoenix in order to warm up for the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Castroneves participated in the Test in the West with the other IRNLS regulars, and he quickly adapted to his No. 66 Dallara-Aurora. He turned in the fourth-fastest lap.

"Honestly things are going well. We’ve gotten down to 20.6 and the car felt pretty good," said Castroneves, a three-time winner in CART last year. "Of course the time needs to get better, but we think we’ll be ready to race for the win here."

Teammate and CART champion de Ferran has been hampered by injuries and illness the past couple months, preventing him from extensively testing his No. 68 Dallara-Aurora. If he’s 100 percent, he’ll be a factor.

So should Greg Ray.

Ray, the 1999 IRNLS champion, sat on the pole at Phoenix in 1999 and 2000. He was involved in an accident that relegated him to 19th place last year, and that kind of luck dogged him throughout the season.

If Team Menard can duplicate its qualifying success -- Ray started first six times last season -- in race conditions, Ray will be strong. In offseason testing he’s already shown that the speed is still there, now Ray needs to show that the bad luck has left.

"You can’t erase a trend, because that stuff was racing incidents," Ray said. "Certainly, having 13 vs. nine, just about everybody is going to have a bad weekend or two."

"I drive cars to win, and we didn’t do enough of that last year."

Eddie Cheever Jr., Scott Sharp, Eliseo Salazar, Airton Dare and Jeff Ward could also be contenders on Sunday. Mears has the team and the name of a winner. Davey Hamilton has a chance with Sam Schmidt’s team. In fact, the same could be said about a lot of drivers, though. Then there’s… well, you get the picture.

"This isn’t a media statement," Ray said, "on any given weekend, one of 15 guys could win and win in dominant fashion."

Uncertainty. That seems to be about the only thing to count on this weekend.

Race Center

Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
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