Sunday, June 09, 2002

Ward wins Boomtown 500

By a nose at Texas in another incredible finish

AP Sports Writer

        FORT WORTH, Texas — Jeff Ward shook his fist in the air, not even knowing if he had beaten Al Unser Jr. to the finish line.

        “I couldn't tell, but I shook it anyway because it was fun,” Ward said.

        But Ward had overtaken Unser just inches from the line Saturday night to win the Boomtown 500 in another incredible finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

        Ward never led until he beat Unser, who had the preferred inside line, by a nose — just .0111 seconds — in the closest finish in Indy Racing League history. That broke the record set at Texas just last fall.

        Going into the final lap, Ward all of a sudden got up to Unser after having been with the front pack for the last few laps.

        “It was kind of a blur,” Ward said. “On the backstretch, I came off the turn better than I had all night. He tried to stay down low and didn't want to give me inside. I kept inching around the outside, going "Come on, Come on.' I don't know where that push came from.”

        That push came from Airton Dare, who finished third, just .0595 seconds behind Ward.

        It was Ward's first win in 51 IRL starts, his sixth for Chip Ganassi Racing.

        “This is a turnaround point. We can look forward now,” he said.

        Helio Castroneves, who has won the last two Indianapolis 500s, finished fourth.

        The front pack of cars all had to make splash-and-go for fuel stops between laps 190-192 of the 200-lap race on the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked quadoval where the IRL ran its 10th race, more than any other track.

        Castroneves, up to speed faster having pitted a lap before Unser, flew by the fellow two-time Indy 500 winner to take the lead on lap 195, but Unser went high on the backstretch two laps later and went back in front.

        “My heart sank at the checkered flag. I knew he had gotten me,” Unser said. “I have no regrets on the last lap. I was committed to the inside line. I didn't do anything different than I had the whole race.”

        Tomas Scheckter, the rookie driver who led 85 laps at Indianapolis 500 before suddenly sliding up the track and into the wall on the 173rd of 200 laps, led 107 laps off the pole at Texas, but failed to finish for the fifth straight race.

        Even though he was without radio contact with his pit the entire race, Scheckter was still leading when he went into the pit at the end of lap 160 for his last scheduled stop. But he never returned to the track because of a clutch problem.

        “I knew my clutch was going. We needed to get out one last time and the car stalled,” said Scheckter, who finished 17th. “I don't know what I have to do to win a race.”

        Scott Sharp was trying to become the first IRL driver to win the same race three consecutive times. That bid ended when Sharp experienced a suspension problem, a huge puff of smoke coming out of his rear as he crossed the line on the 96th lap.

        Sharp started 16th, but after changing tires during the first caution just nine laps into the race, he took the lead on lap 56 when the rest of the pack made green flag stops. His lead lasted only until he had to pit 14 laps later.

        Scheckter led three times, going the front for the last time on lap 130 during the last of four cautions.

        That caution was for an accident involving his car owner, Eddie Cheever Jr., and defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr., who won at Texas last fall in what was the closest 1-2-3 finish in the 7-year-old series.

        While they were battling for fifth place on the 126th lap, Cheever moved underneath and his right front tire clipped Hornish's left rear. Both cars spun and crashed hard into the wall.

        “I had a place to go and I was there,” Cheever said. “It was tight and we touched. It's a pity because we were both moving up.”

        Hornish, who spent much of the first half of the race on Scheckter's tail, was coming back from a lost tire when the wreck occurred.

        Hornish beat Scheckter out of the pit on the third caution, but as soon as he got back on the track reported he had problems with his right rear. As he came toward the fourth turn toward the pit, the wheel popped off.

        When the race went green again on lap 101, Hornish had to drop to 15th, the end of the lead lap.

        Scheckter, who won the pole with a speed of 220.146 mph, led the first 52 laps, not giving up to the lead until his first pit stop. Cheever had started on the front row with his driver, the 21-year-old son of 1979 Formula One champion Jody Scheckter.

        “Once again we had the fastest cars on the track, and once again we failed to execute,” said Cheever. “Things have to turn in our favor soon.”

        There were nine leaders with Unser leading 38 laps and Shigeaki Hattori 28.

        Sharp won last June, finishing under caution after avoiding a wreck that took Cheever and Greg Ray out of the race after the trio had gone side-by-side and three-wide for most of the last 40 laps.

        The previous year, Sharp beat Robbie McGehee by .059 seconds. That was then the closest finish in IRL history, and then Sharp finished .0188 seconds, or a nose, behind Hornish last fall.


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