Wheels Turning For IRL Opener

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It’s amazing how much a simple entry list can say about an event.

Need proof? Look no further than the expected participants for the Indy Racing League season opener at the Homestead-Miami Speedway (set for March 2 on the 1.5-mile oval in south Florida). Intriguing to say the least, the Grand Prix of Miami entry list reveals 26 cars, three with unnamed drivers and perhaps the strongest field in IRL history.

Leading the charge to the 2002 title is defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr. The winner of last season’s event at Miami, Hornish hasn’t lost a step in the offseason, setting the fastest overall speed during the Test in the West at Phoenix International Speedway earlier this month.

Preparing to challenge Hornish are perennial IRL favorites Scott Sharp (Kelley Racing), Eddie Cheever Jr. (Red Bull Cheever Racing) and Buddy Lazier (Hemelgarn Racing). There are others, too, such as the “other” Lazier, Buddy’s brother Jaques. After coming on strong at the end of last season, many feel the battle between the two brothers will be just as entertaining as they battle for the championship.

And then, of course, there are those who are crossing over. Roger Penske brought his highly successful CART FedEx Championship duo of Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves to the IRL full time for 2002, and they are expected to contend for the title. The Penskes, as well as a single car fielded by former CART owner Larry Blair and one each by current CART owners Mo Nunn and Chip Ganassi, are also on the entry list for Miami.

Hey, did that say Chip Ganassi? It has been rumored for weeks that Ganassi will expand his racing resume to include the IRL … and if the entry list means anything, the speculation is true.

The No. 9 G-Force Chevrolet owned and operated by Chip Ganassi Racing, is on said list, and although the driver is officially the infamous TBA, many suspect veteran Jeff Ward has an inside track on the ride. Ward tested for Ganassi at Fontana during Test in the West, and Ganassi made it clear then that he was entertaining the idea of fielding a car full time in the IRL (in addition to his CART and Winston Cup teams) in 2002.

"I'm meeting with Chip and them, and we'll see how everything goes," Ward said at the time. "Everything looks good. We'd like to do the full year. I think everything is hopefully in place. This was the first step here. That's what we've been shooting for, so we'll see how everything comes together. That's what I'd like to see. Everybody would, I'm sure.”

An announcement concerning Ganassi's participation in the Grand Prix of Miami is expected sometime this week.

Conspicuously missing from the Miami entry list are two or the IRL’s biggest crowd pleasers - Sarah Fisher and Al Unser Jr.

Walker Racing has not secured the sponsorship needed to run Fisher in the series full time this season. As a result, the young fan-favorite is left on the outside looking in. Unser, meanwhile, is still searching for a ride. The open-wheel legend was left unemployed this winter when Galles Racing closed its doors.

The absence of Unser in the Grand Prix of Miam may be short-lived though. Whispers around the IRL paddock have linked him with several different teams, including a possible second car with Ganassi or a third car at Kelley Racing (joining Sharp and Greg Ray).

As for the other TBAs on the entry list (in addition to Ganassi), one is for the second car at Red Bull Cheever Racing. Team owner Eddie Cheever has been putting the announcement of his teammate off for several weeks, nevertheless youngster Tomas Scheckter is expected to win the job. Bradley Motorsports also appears on the entry list without a driver.

In all, there are six rookies, four former IRL champions, three Indianapolis 500 winners and 26 cars on the entry list.

The 2002 IRL season kicks off on March 2 at 1 p.m. (ET) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ABC.

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