Veterans Banking On Atlanta

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With Sam Hornish Jr.’s back-to-back wins, Sarah Fisher’s career-best finish and rookie Felipe Giaffone’s surprising third-place showing in the points, young drivers have stepped into the spotlight in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series this season.

Meanwhile, veterans Eliseo Salazar, Jeff Ward and Scott Sharp have quietly gone about their business. Salazar is second in the points standings, 29 points off Hornish’s blistering pace. Ward has a pole position to his credit and is tied with Scott Sharp at fourth place in the points.

The experienced trio can step out of the young guns’ shadows with good showings under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday night. Based on their comments, it’s clear the veterans like their chances on the 1.5-mile, high-banked oval.

"I really love those races on the 1.5-mile ovals, and I've always done well, so I am really looking forward to Atlanta," said Salazar, who scored his only IRNLS win on Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile banked oval in 1997.

"Atlanta has been a good track to us," said Sharp, the 1999 winner at Atlanta. "It’s really smooth. I’m not sure how strongly we’ll qualify, but I know we’ll race real well there.

"I love the high-banked tracks like Atlanta."

"In Atlanta you can take the car flat out all the way around the track, because the banking is so high," Ward said. "Atlanta hides the car's handling problems so you can drive anywhere on the track. Drivers can easily get side by side."

Of the three, it is Salazar who is carrying the torch for the veterans. He’s had finishes of second and third in the first two races of the season and has led 16 laps of competition. With A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 Dallara-Aurora powering him, Salazar is well-equipped to challenge Hornish and the Pennzoil Panther Racing team.

In Atlanta, 45-year-old Salazar expects his experience to pay off.

"At a track like Atlanta with 24 degrees of banking, you go flat-out around the track," he explained. "In practice and qualifying, it is not as demanding on driver skill as the flatter tracks like Miami and Las Vegas, but when race time comes, that is when the racing qualities come into play, such as the drivers knowing how to utilize the draft and just overall race craft."

Salazar has proven that he knows how to use the draft on the 1.5-mile ovals. In 15 appearances on the intermediate-sized tracks, the Chile native has nine top-10 finishes, including his lone win in 1997.

Sharp, 33, has also found success at the 1.5-milers. He’s accumulated six top-10 finishes, including two wins, on the mile-and-a-half tracks. One of those wins, at Texas last season, featured the closest finish in IRNLS history and has been called one of the greatest open-wheel races of all time.

He, too, places a lot of importance on drafting at Atlanta.

"I love the high-banked tracks like Atlanta. In the past we haven’t always had the most power, but it’s been clear evidence that no matter where you qualify, if you have a car that will draft well you’re going to have a good race," said Sharp, driver of the No. 8 Kelley Racing Dallara-Aurora "I love those tracks and what the draft does for our cars. You really alter your strategy.

"Instead of working on a car where you’re trying to get the most grip out of it and trying to get a car that’s not so disturbed in traffic, you really switch gears and start thinking about nothing but drafting with guys and fuel strategy. Those are the two things that separate you from someone else."

Thirty-nine-year-old Ward has seven career top-10 finishes on 1.5-mile tracks. His Heritage Motorsports team is on a roll with two top-10 finishes this season and a pole position at Homestead even though the team came together just more than three months ago.

"This team has a good combination for winning," Ward said. "Menard (engine development) has given us a great motor, and I've driven the G Force for four years. It's a proven race car, and that car can win. Plus, the team has had experience working together before, so there were no teething pains in the beginning.

"We have all the key pieces to run up front, and if we can get everything to fit together for us in Atlanta, we will finish first."

If he can manage a win, it will be the first time a driver has beat the Panther team in three races. The team won the 2000 season finale with veteran Scott Goodyear and the first two races of this season with 21-year-old Hornish behind the wheel.

Not to be outdone, rookie Giaffone has finishes of fourth and sixth and is third in the points, 15 points behind Salazar. Fisher is coming off a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway on April 8 and is sixth in the standings, three points behind Ward and Sharp.

The war of the ages continues at 8 p.m. Friday with qualifying for the Atlanta 500 Classic. The race is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on Saturday.

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