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The wait is almost over for IRL teams

February 20, 2002

The weeks of waiting and wondering are nearly over. Indy Racing League teams have worked during the offseason on every aspect of their programs. Engines. Chassis. Some have added new drivers and crew members. Some are joining the league for the first time. Most have turned hundreds and hundreds of miles of test laps.

But all that time, there still have been questions gnawing away at these teams. And there's only one place where those teams can find answers - the 20th Anniversary Grand Prix of Miami on Saturday, March 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the inaugural event of the 15-race Indy Racing League season in 2002.

Test laps are useful, but nothing gives an Indy Racing team perspective like a race. It's the truest barometer of performance.

Here are a few questions that may be answered on the 1.5-mile oval at Homestead-Miami during the Grand Prix of Miami:

*Can Sam do it again? When Sam Hornish Jr. won this race last year for his second consecutive victory of the season in as many starts, many Indy Racing observers and teammates started to believe that he was capable of winning the series title in just his second season of Indy Racing. Hornish did more than win - he dominated. Hornish clinched the title with three victories and 11 top-five finishes in 13 starts during a dream season. Can Hornish repeat that brilliance this year with Pennzoil Panther Racing and become the first driver in league history to win two consecutive league championships? He already has sent a message to his rivals, posting the fastest overall lap of 179.803 mph during the Test in the West Feb. 8-9 at Phoenix International Raceway.

*How fast will Penske adjust? Marlboro Team Penske, the winningest team in Indy-style racing history, will compete full time this year in the Indy Racing League with drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. How quickly will the team adapt to racing exclusively on ovals with an equipment package that it's used in only two races? It probably won't take long, if preseason testing is any indication. Two-time CART champion de Ferran and 2001 Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves were among the fastest drivers each day of the preseason Test in the West Feb. 6-9 at California Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. de Ferran and Castroneves, both South Florida residents, could launch their full-time Indy Racing League careers with victories at Homestead-Miami, their home track.

*Is this Eliseo's year? Veteran Eliseo Salazar, a suburban Miami resident, returns to A.J. Foyt Racing for the third consecutive year. That familiarity with Foyt's operation could help Salazar contend for his first Indy Racing League championship. He finished fifth in the series point standings last season, helped by a third-place finish at Homestead-Miami.

*Who will win the power struggle? General Motors engines have won all five season titles and all but two races since the Indy Racing League introduced its normally aspirated engine formula in 1997. But this could be a breakthrough year for Infiniti in the IRL, as the manufacturer will have at least four cars using its 35A engine. Infiniti standard bearers Eddie Cheever Jr. and Robbie Buhl return, and promising rookie Laurent Redon will use an Infiniti engine. Cheever also will field a second car, with the driver to be named soon. But Chevrolet is back in Indy-style racing starting this year in the IRL, and its powerful engine will be used by nearly every team and showed increased performance during preseason testing.

*Which Lazier will be fastest? Buddy Lazier has been a dominant star of the Indy Racing League since the series debuted in 1996. He has a series-record eight career Indy Racing victories with Hemelgarn Racing, including the 1996 Indianapolis 500. He won the 2000 series title and finished runner-up last year with a league-record four victories. But Buddy's younger brother, Jaques, will make a run for the title of fastest Lazier this year in his first full season with Team Menard. Jaques Lazier earned a victory and pole in just three starts with Team Menard last year and could contend for the Indy Racing League title this year. There's little doubt that the Laziers will be the fastest brothers on wheels this year in American racing.

*Will Blair and Mo Nunn make a seamless transition? Marlboro Team Penske isn't the only team moving to Indy Racing from CART this year. Blair Racing and Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing also will make their Indy Racing debuts this year. Veteran Alex Barron, who has one career Indy Racing start, will drive for Blair. 2001 Chevy Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone will drive for Mo Nunn. How quickly will these teams get up to speed as they adjust to racing full time on ovals with Indy Racing League equipment?

*Will a rookie win a race? A rookie hasn't won an Indy Racing League event since Jim Guthrie stunned the field in 1997 at Phoenix. Can that drought end this year? Rookies entered to compete in the Grand Prix of Miami include Rick Treadway with Treadway and Associates Racing, Anthony Lazzaro with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Laurent Redon with Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing, George Mack with 310 Racing, Hideki Noda with Convergent Racing and John de Vries with Brayton Racing. Tomas Scheckter was among the five fastest drivers each day of the Test in the West while serving as a test driver for Red Bull Cheever Racing and could earn the second seat for the team owned by 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr.

Practice for the 200-lap, 300-mile race starts at 10 a.m. (EST) Feb. 28. MBNA Pole Qualifying takes place at 12:30 p.m. March 1, with the race getting underway at 1 p.m. March 2, live on ABC.

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