Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Rice, Lazier, Barron also honored
By Jack Arute
Sam Hornish Jr.'s thrilling win -- in the race and for the IRL championship -- over Helio Castroneves was not the only four-star performance Sunday in the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
It was only his fourth start, but Vitor Meira has put the smile back on the face of the Menard team. He started out the weekend by taking the pole and proceeded to lead twice in the race.
"The only trouble I had was on traffic," Meira said after his third-place finish. "The car was pretty consistent. I didn't have anything on Turn 2."
Meira's late-season performances have Team Menard considering expanding its operation into a two-car effort in 2003. Jaques Lazier has received his medical clearance and is ready to start testing Chevy's new smaller lighter Gen III engine. Meira now must wait for Menard's decision.
"Next year, I don't know what am I going to do yet, but I'm going to pray to keep on doing this," Meira said. "I'm enjoying very much. It's the best thing I ever did. I'm going to keep on trying to be here next year."
Alex Barron's team worked hard in practice to find the edge they missed in qualifying.
"We made a breakthrough on the mile-and-a-half oval setups," Barron said.
During the race, Barron wrestled with the leaders most of the day. In the end though, the Hornish-Castroneves battle took center stage and Barron drafted his way to a fifth-place finish.
It was a remarkable season for Barron. After a number of years toiling on the fringe of open-wheel racing, the Californian showed the racing community he belonged when he captured the Nashville event.
"I think we have accomplished a lot this year. As a new team, we excelled," Barron said. "We have a solid crew. Larry put this team together late but worked hard on assembling the right key personnel. We are very satisfied with our results. To finish fifth is great."
It's amazing how quickly Buddy Rice has made many forget Tomas Scheckter. Rice logged another top-10 finish (sixth) and increased his career top-10s to four in his five starts.
"It was really good until the last pit stop when, for whatever reason, the car died," Rice said. "Once that happened, we were too far back to make it up. We sat right where we wanted to for most of the race. The car was really good on long runs. We just couldn't get a break to get us a podium finish or a win here. That's the way it goes."
The 'way it goes' is likely to include a full-time spot on Eddie Cheever's team.
"Our new arrival Buddy Rice completed every lap of every race, a perfect finishing record," Cheever said. "I am looking forward to running him next year because I believe he has a lot to show."
No one would blame the 2000 IRL champ if he's thankful that the season is over. Buddy Lazier and his Hemelgarn team could not generate any momentum this season.
"It was not the season we were looking for at all," Lazier said. "It was a strong effort nonetheless. We had to overcome a lot of troubles this year."
The Vail, Colo., resident qualified 20th and never played a role in the race's outcome. But he did finish seventh, earning his seventh top-10 of the season.
"It was just not the day that we wanted. We finished seventh, and that's about all she had today," Lazier said. "But it was a great championship battle, and we finished eighth in the points. Like I say, We're looking forward to getting it on next year."