The Buddy System

Forget the International Race of Champions. Buddy Lazier has already moved past the 2001 IROC series. But that doesn't mean that Lazier isn't a champion.

In fact, Lazier is the reigning Indy Racing North Light Series titlest. And that's the one crown that Lazier wants to focus on. Don't bet against him.

Lazier will soon make history by becoming the first two-time champion in the IRNLS history. He already has seven career victories, tops in the league's record book.

Why will Lazier successfully defend his championship? Here's a dozen reasons why.

1. Sam Hornish, the only driver currently separating Lazier from first place, just can't keep up the pace. The youngster won the first two races of the season and had a brilliant first half. But second-place Lazier has the momentum now and has moved within 40 points.

2. Lazier showed what he was made of in the most recent IRNLS race at Nashville. The driver, his wife and son all had the flu. The Nashville event was the first since Lazier got married that his wife missed. But Lazier's team gave him a car that could win, and Buddy drove it to victory lane. Of course, we already new that Lazier had that special toughness of a winner. He won the 1996 Indy 500 less than two months after suffering multiple lower back fractures.

3. Team owner Ron Hemelgarn is confident. In fact, he's predicting a championship.

4. Hemelgarn and Lazier have put CART behind them, and for good reason. There's no rivalry because everything is about winning the IRNLS title. "I'm just tickled to death the way the Indy Racing League has progressed," Hemelgarn said after winning in Nashville. "It's really out of its infancy. People don't talk about what happened between IRL and CART. It's behind us. Now, they're talking about the great racing and the wheel-to-wheel racing."

5. Likewise, Lazier's team doesn't let the rules - or the constant evolution of rules - bother him. They understand that everybody has to play by the same set. "We never question what the technical people at the Indy Racing League do," Lazier said. True champions don't whine their way to a title.

6. Lazier not only has a college degree, but he's cracked open the right books. He majored in business and communications and minored in psychology, obviously putting together an education package just designed for racing success.

7. Lazier also has the obligatory racing relations. His father, Bob, competed in the 1981 Indy 500. His younger brother, Jacques, is also an IRNLS driver.

8. Lazier loves the fans and the fans love Lazier. The driver has been pumped up by the IRNLS's recent sellout crowds, and the lovefest isn't about to stop. Three of the remaining four crowds are likely to be of Lazier's liking, with Kentucky and Texas sure things. Chicago is likely to be another big party.

9. Speaking of parties, you got to love those ones right off the slopes. Lazier honed much of his competitiveness not on concrete, but on snow. As a young skier, Lazier battled future Olympians and learned what it took to win at the highest levels.

10. How can Lazier not win with those sponsors of his? Any car powered by Coors Light and the secrets of Tae-Bo obviously has an advantage over the rest of the racing machines. We can't forget Delta Faucet, can we? Buddy's no drip.

11. Lazier has already captured one championship that went down to the wire, clinching the title last year at Texas Motor Speedway while relegating Hornish's Panther Racing to second. Of course, Scott Goodyear was driving for Panther last year, but the driver won't matter at that point. Lazier won't be taking names or prisoners.

12. Normally, we'd be skeptical of any driver flying around with the No. 91 on the side of his car, though personally we like the mystical symmetry of the largest and smallest numerals being linked together. (Zeroes don't count among heroes.) But Lazier has managed to make the No. 91 cool, sticking with it despite the opportunity to carry the champion's "No. 1."

A number, by the way, that Lazier will get a chance to wear next year if he wants. And he's also likely to get another chance at the IROC series, since he's a true champion and will successfully defend his IRNLS title.

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