Cheever back because he says he can win

Updated: May 20, 2006, 9:32 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Eddie Cheever Jr. claims to have "unfinished business," which sounds a little odd coming from someone who already has quenched his thirst with the victor's milk at Indianapolis.

Eddie Cheever Jr.
Michael Hickey/WireImage.comEddie Cheever was never a big fan of Champ Car, or "F1 Lite" as he called it.

But he just couldn't live with how his then-final Indianapolis 500 laps played out in 2002, or without taking another shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a season when a single engine supplier has leveled the playing field.

That's how a 48-year-old car owner becomes a driver again, with the excitement of someone half his age.

"I'm very glad we have the opportunity," Cheever said. "A lot of drivers of my generation have come back [Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr.], all for different reasons but all because it's the Indianapolis 500."

Cheever won the 1998 race, then four years later was certain a second title was in his grasp. But while trying to pass Paul Tracy with five laps remaining, his Dallara-Infiniti got sideways and nearly spun out exiting Turn 1, and a run for first ended up a disappointing fifth.

"I had fallen behind on the first pit stop and finally got in position at the end to do well, but I lost my momentum and that was that," Cheever said. "I've had that on my mind all the time."

He never officially retired. But coming into this season, he had not raced in an IndyCar event since the end of 2002. Sticking with his owner duties, he stood by and watched as Cheever Racing struggled against the bigger and richer teams on the circuit. His drivers failed to finish higher than 11th at Indy from 2003 to 2005.

But when Honda was announced as the sole engine supplier for the 2006 season, Cheever's competitive fires were refueled, for his team and himself.

"We had some really good drivers here the last three years, but we were always on the wrong side of the railroad when it came to engine packages," he said. "Now you don't have that monkey on your back that you know you're 40 horsepower down. If you know that is not an issue, everyone refocuses and you just keep working through it until you find some solutions."

They're the kind of circumstances that turn a "why?" into a "why not?" when it comes to a comeback question.

"That's an environment that gets a lot of people to come out of the woodwork to try to win the race again or win it for the first time," said 1996 winner and 13-time starter Buddy Lazier. "I can see the appeal for Cheever, for Michael [Andretti]. The appeal is there because there's the chance to have a race car on race day that can win."

In two previous starts this year, however, Cheever hasn't had that car. He said the team was "in hibernation" three weeks prior to the season opener at Homestead-Miami, and during the race he struggled merely to stay out of everyone's way en route to a 10th-place finish, last among cars running at the end.

He started to get comfortable in his Dallara-Honda some 60 laps into the street race at St. Petersburg, then a poor pit stop blew an opportunity for a top-10 finish and he placed 11th.

So far this month at Indianapolis, where everyone has struggled to squeeze in track time between persistent showers, Cheever is the 17th-fastest driver on the speed charts with a top lap of 223.054 mph. It's not a car that will scare the Penske and Ganassi contingent during qualifying this weekend, but Cheever professes indifference for qualifying anyway.

"I have a balance in mind that I want to achieve with full tanks, that's truly my only objective before the race starts," Cheever said. "The engineers are honing in on where that should be."

Some of the off-track issues of running a smaller team still need to be addressed -- Wednesday morning his crew removed the Red Bull labels from fuel barrels, the last signs of a primary sponsor that left last year and had yet to be replaced -- and Cheever now juggles those details with the cockpit. But it feels terrific.

"The allure of the 500 is the same for everybody," he said. "All I ever ask when I'm here at Indy is a chance to have a chance [to win]."

A chance to perhaps take care of some unfinished business.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com