Lazier shows why he's a winner


INDIANAPOLIS – Two days ago, with the right side of his race car caved
in after a Carburetion Day crash, Buddy Lazier could only dream of a
top-five finish in the 89th Indianapolis 500.

But a fast and savvy run into fifth place in Sunday's race should be enough to remind a few team owners what the IndyCar Series' forgotten champion is capable of pulling off.

Lazier had the confidence to drive into Turn 1 for the start of the race with his right foot to the floor despite not having turned a wheel in anger since that mystifying incident on Friday. He found that he had a solid racecar underneath him and if not for some late-race contact with Scott Sharp (that resulted in Sharp being black-flagged for blocking), Lazier felt he had a fair shot at the overall victory.

"Without the contact, I think we would have been able to make a better run of it in the end," said the 34-year-old Colorado native, who was the first winner of the first IRL-sanctioned Indy 500 back in 1996.

"I had contact with Sharp, which broke the left-front
wing. You can't say if you're ever going to win or not, but without
the wings being like that, we would have had a better shot. I figured
I'd save it until the end and make a run for it, but there were also
some cars blocking me."

Between 1996 and 2000, Lazier was Indy's most consistent driver,
adding a pair of seconds to his '96 victory and finishing no lower
than seventh.

Lazier went on to win the 2000 IRL IndyCar Series
championship for Hemelgarn Racing, but he and the team slipped back
from the front of the field as former Champ Car teams with greater
resources and technical capabilities switched over to the IndyCar Series. By the
end of 2003, Hemelgarn was temporarily out of the IRL and Lazier was
forced into a part-time role with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

This year, when two-time IndyCar champions Panther Racing decided to
field a third entry at Indianapolis, they tapped the man they
considered one of their toughest rivals. And Lazier came through in
style. He was Chevrolet's fastest qualifier and its chief threat on
race day.

"I think we would have really charged at the end and had a chance to
win, so my hat is off to Chevy," Lazier said. "They gave me a
motor that would have won today. It's a testament to Panther Racing
and my engineers, Andy Brown and Seth Fleming. All these guys worked
together all night for two nights to put that car back together."

Lazier is hoping that his competitive run at Indy leads to a full-
time return to IndyCar competition. An obvious destination might be
Hemelgarn Racing, where rookie Paul Dana struggled to get up to speed
this year before breaking his back during a practice accident at
Indianapolis. Series insiders hinted that Dana, who also crashed at
Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year despite running about
15 mph off the pace, is unlikely to be granted a license to compete
even when he is physically ready to return to action.

"We're going to keep working on it," Lazier said. "Certainly my
agenda is to be back full-time IndyCar racing and hopefully this will
help. I don't know."

Lazier's resilient drive certainly caught the eye of Panther co-owner
Gary Pedigo.

"Buddy just drove the wheels off his car, and it looked more like a
NASCAR car than an Indy car at the finish," Pedigo said. "He just
wouldn't give up. There's no quit in him.

"The Chevy Indy V-8 did a great job and the car was really good all day. Buddy just had an unfortunate incident when he was blocked and broke the front wings.
You don't come here to run fifth, but it's better than most."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.