Iseason Preview:/I IRNLS 2001Brthe Title Contenders

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When the green flag flies at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday, it will signal much more than the start of a 200-mile race. It will usher in perhaps the most competitive Indy Racing Northern Light Series season yet.

This week, RacingOne previews the 13-race season that begins with the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 on Sunday. Today, RacingOne focuses on the front-runners for the 2001 Northern Light Cup.

Reigning IRNLS champion Buddy Lazier knows that defending his title is going to be tough. Just how tough is anybody’s guess, but Lazier has an idea.

"It’s going to be really difficult," said Lazier, who won twice on his way to the title last season. "With the even platform the Indy Racing League has, anybody can win on any given day, any one of these teams can win. So when all the equipment is equal, it makes it extremely difficult to string lots of championships together or win a lot of races in a row because you can’t get a technical advantage."

Greg Ray knows it’s going to be hard for Lazier to repeat, too. He’s been there. Ray, the 1999 champion, struggled in 2000, winning just once and posting just two other top-10 finishes. He finished 13th in the point standings.

"It’s kind of like we say sometimes -- that’s just racing -- and it seems like we navigated the Bermuda Triangle all year long," said Ray, a six-time pole-sitter in 2000. "We only steered clear in Atlanta."

Ray and Lazier have been strong in the offseason, posting some of the fastest times in open testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the second race of the season, and Phoenix.

That’s also where other title contenders emerged, particularly Sam Hornish Jr. and Eliseo Salazar.

Hornish, replacing Scott Goodyear in Pennzoil Panther’s No. 4, firmly planted himself among the title hopefuls by ripping off some of the fastest laps in both open test sessions. At the Test in the West at Phoenix’s 1-mile oval on Feb. 9 and 10, Hornish turned in the second fastest lap of 176.554 mph. That was right behind Stephan Gregoire’s fast time and more than 1 mph faster than Lazier, who was third quick.

At Homestead, Hornish was simply untouchable. He was the only driver to top 200 mph on the 1.5-mile flat oval and was almost 2 mph faster than Salazar, who was second quick.

Couple that with Hornish joining last season’s second-place team in the points, and a potent combination is formed.

With a year of IRNLS competition under his belt, Hornish is feeling confident.

"Just all the recognition that’s behind the name of Pennzoil gives me some big shoes to fill, but I think I’m ready to do it," said 21-year-old Hornish.

Salazar, like Hornish, is stepping into some big shoes, as well. He takes over the legendary No. 14 at A.J. Foyt Racing. Coming off a fourth-place finish in the point standing last season, he seems up to the task.

"Anyone who knows the history of A.J. Foyt knows that the No. 14 is very special," said Salazar, a 45-year-old native of Chile. "I feel honored to be driving that car this year."

Foyt is happy to have the veteran back.

"Eliseo did a great job for me last year," Foyt said. "I think we surprised a lot of people who thought this combination wouldn't work. But I like his attitude because he wants to win as much as I do. He stands on the gas and never gives up."

Besides being title contenders, Lazier, Ray, Hornish and Salazar have another thing in common: their cars. All four will be piloting Dallara-Auroras, which seems to be the ideal combination and the one of choice.

In G Force-Auroras, Al Unser Jr. and Airton Dare should figure into the title mix as well.

Unser is now the veteran of what is a three-car Galles Racing effort with rookies Casey Mears and Didier Andre. Unser, a two-time Indy 500 winner, likes the idea of having two teammates.

"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 won once in his first IRNLS season. "I can tell you that in 1994 (when Unser won the CART title) it was a positive for the three-car team.

"If it works right and if we all work together -- which we’re going to do because the main goal here is to bring a championship back to Albuquerque, N.M, and put the No. 1 on one of these cars here -– it’s the best way to do it."

Rookie of the year Dare ran well in 2000, posting one podium finish and running strong at Indy before his engine let go. If the team can cut down on mechanical problems, Dare could be a player.

"The experience that I got during the whole year and the knowledge I got about the car, about how to do stuff and the IRL car, I mean I’m like 100 percent better than last year in being ready for this race," said Dare, driver of TeamXtreme’s No. 88. "I think that myself and TeamXtreme, we are on another level right now from last year.

"We made a lot of mistakes last year, and we learned from those mistakes, so we are going to be a lot more competitive than last year."

Don’t count out Mark Dismore, Scott Sharp and Eddie Cheever Jr., either.

Sharp and Dismore have veteran Tim Bumps on board as team manager at Kelley Racing.

"He’s won Indy 500s. He’s won car titles. He knows what it takes," Dismore said. "When you see him at a race track, he’s always deep in thought about something, and he’s absolutely done nothing but make our team better."

In June, Sharp won the closest IRNLS ever when he beat Robby McGehee across the line at Texas Motor Speedway. It was Sharp’s only win of the year.

Cheever Jr. went into the 2000 season finale at Texas with an outside shot at the title. He eventually finished the season third in the point standings and, with the addition of Scott Goodyear as a test driver, put himself in position as an early favorite for the 2001 title.

But Cheever, who along with Robbie Buhl is the only driver to use the Infiniti engine, has been hampered by Nissan’s engine problem. Originally scheduled to be rolled out in time for offseason testing, the 35A engine was just made available to teams last week.

Without testing, the 35A makes Cheever a question mark.

In the ever-increasingly competitive IRNLS, though, anything is possible.

"Thirteen races, I mean, you may have 13 different winners," Ray said.

Yes, it’s expected to be competitive.

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