Ward tastes victory

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- Jeff Ward overtook Al Unser Jr. 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.

Airton Dare finished third, just .0595 seconds behind Ward, who won for the first time in 51 career starts with an average speed of 169.984 mph.

''I don't know how we did it on the outside,'' said Ward, who is in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing. ''This is a turnaround point. We can look forward now.''

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.

Ward was running in the top four throughout the final laps, and with a push from Dare on his tail, had just enough to win at the line.

''Ward had to do the job, and he came up and around me,'' Unser said. ''I thought we had enough, but right there at the end it just wasn't enough. Wardy earned it for sure.''

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.

He was leading when he went into the pit at the end of lap 160 for his last scheduled stop, but 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.

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 the closest finish in IRL history -- until last fall when Sharp was .0188 seconds, or a nose, behind Hornish last fall.

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