Salazar Slips Into Contention

Lost amid the hype surrounding Panther Racing vs. Team Penske, former CART drivers vs. Indy Racing League stalwarts and CART champ vs. IRL champ was Eliseo Salazar’s strong run for A.J. Foyt Enterprises at Phoenix International Raceway.

But Salazar’s fourth-place finish after leading seven laps shouldn’t have been a surprise. He finished second to eventual winner and champion Sam Hornish Jr. last season and fourth in 2000.

This year he had his best performance at the 1-mile oval. He started the 200-lap Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 in the 10th position, and he was in the Top 3 by Lap 97. On Lap 138 he passed Al Unser Jr. for the lead. He led the next seven laps before pitting.

“I am happy because we were competitive,” said Salazar, driver of the No. 11 Dallara-Chevy. “We led laps, and we were running with the Penske and Panther teams. We lost the lead because we had a slight problem on our pit stop.”

He emerged from the pits in third, but points leader Hornish got by on Lap 165.

“When I went to pass (teammate Airton) Dare, I had to lift a bit, and Hornish got a run on me and got by,” Salazar said. “But it was fun.

“The car is brilliant, it has a very good balance.”

With his fourth-place run, Salazar joins Hornish, Phoenix winner Helio Castroneves and two-time CART champ Gil de Ferran as the only drivers to finish in the Top 5 in the first two races of the year. As a result, Salazar is fourth in the points, 29 behind Hornish, but just 18 points behind de Ferran for third.

Salazar attributes his success at Phoenix to preparation, and lots of it.

“I like Phoenix a lot,” said Salazar, who made his first oval start at Phoenix in 1995. “I have tested here a lot over the years as have a lot of teams because it is a typical Indy oval. It feels like home to me, I know every little part of it.”

This year, Salazar tested at Phoenix on Feb. 5 and 7. He was happy with the results, as was team owner Foyt.

“I believe we’ll be very competitive when we come back next month,” Foyt said.

He was right.

Salazar and the rest of the IRL drivers return to action Sunday at the Yamaha Indy 400 at California Speedway. The race is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. (ET).

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