One of Las Vegas’ three busiest weekends of the year, the Memorial Day holiday, will be highlighted by a spectacular day of auto racing.
Kicking it off at 9 a.m. Sunday is the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500, which will be followed at 2 p.m. by NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C.
The first round went to CART last season as Juan-Pablo Montoya rolled to victory in his Ganassi-powered IRL car. That was the first time a CART driver had driven in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" since a bitter feud between Indy Motor Speedway’s Tony George and CART forced a split following the ’95 season.
Though George never publicly said so, all who know him knew he was steaming when Montoya drank the milk, a storied tradition in Indy history. The rest of the auto-racing world found out what most already knew - CART drivers and their equipment are far superior to their IRL counterparts.
Fast-forward to this season. Montoya will not be participating because of his commitments to BMW and Formula One, which is in Monaco.
However, car owner Chip Ganassi remains committed to repeating as champion, and this year he has brought four cars into the race, armed with some special drivers. Tony Stewart (8-1) and Jimmy Vasser (7-1) have agreed to a one-race deal for Ganassi and give the team the best possible chance at repeating.
CART also brings its top tandem to this year’s race. Roger Penske’s team of Gil de Ferran (5-1) and Helio Castro-Neves (7-1) have already established themselves as favorites. Seeing Montoya win last year gave Penske the motivation to put an IRL engine program together and return to Indy after a five-year hiatus.
In the other corner, we have the IRL, filled with drivers who may have never had the opportunity to race at Indy if it weren’t for the split. Their top candidate is Buddy Lazier (5-1). Lazier finished second to Montoya last season. It was his fourth Top 5 finish at Indy in the five races since the split, including a win in ’96.
After Lazier, the IRL then comes with the "Fly Boys": Greg Ray (10-1), Scott Sharp (8-1), Jeff Ward (12-1) and Mark Dismore (14-1). These fellows flat out fly on the track, especially when there is no one else racing. They are qualifying studs but have done little else.
Along with Lazier, the IRL’s best chance at capturing a win rests with Sam Hornish Jr. (10-1) and Arie Luyendyk (18-1). Their styles are similar, which is amazing because they are so far apart in age. What has been a proven winner throughout Indy 500 racing history is utilizing what the car will give for the first 150 laps, taking no more, because the idea is to be on the track to have a chance. Hornish is the series points leader and has two wins.
Overall, CART driver Jimmy Vasser has the necessary patience and horsepower to give him the best shot at winning this Sunday. His cool and calculating style might have given him a win last season, but Ganassi ordered an irregular pit stop for team strategy. The move paid off, but Ganassi knows Vasser is his ace in this race, and he will be treated as the No. l driver, much like Montoya was last year.
Look for the "Fly Boys" to drive real fast early, but mechanical and operator errors are sure to doom them, leaving the race to Lazier, Hornish, Luyendyk and the CART drivers.
Station Casinos posted 10 Indy 500 driver match-ups and three props. They have the grudge match prop between the IRL and CART: "What series will the winning driver come from?" There also is a prop dealing with drivers finishing on the lead lap, which is set at 5Â½ drivers. The dual race performance of Tony Stewart conjured up a number 19Â½ combined finish positions in the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600.
Jeff Gordon (4-1) was spectacular in last week’s Winston, and that was using a back-up car. This week he comes in the favorite to a track where he’s won four times. An added bonus for Gordon is that he is eligible for the $1 million "Winston No Bull" bonus that comes with finishing in the Top 5 at Las Vegas in March. Gordon likes to go for the money, and following his display last week, it’s very hard to choose against him.
Bobby Labonte (6-1) and Tony Stewart (5-1) showed some signs of life for the Gibbs duo. Labonte has always liked Charlotte, which runs similar to Atlanta. Dale Jarrett (5-1) has Gordon breathing down his neck in the standings, and in order to stay ahead he’ll have to pay close attention to where the 24 is. Jarrett is a three-time winner at Charlotte.
The top drivers are the ones to watch in this longer race. The cream rises to the top. The extra 100 miles means another pit stop, and with the exception of last year, where young Matt Kenseth (35-1) won, this race has generally favored the top teams. Look for that trend to continue this week.