Buddy Lazier made winning the VisionAire 500 look easy. Finding Victory Lane was the hard part.
Lazier used some artful dodging to outduel Billy Boat and win the VisionAire 500 on Saturday night, the inaugural Indy Racing League event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that for decades has stood as the cradle of NASCAR racing.
But with a larger-than-expected crowd of 73,039 on its feet to cheer his triumph, Lazier drove down pit road and couldn't locate Victory Lane. By the time he did, he had driven past the turnoff and had to back up and try again.
"I didn't know where it was. I'll be honest," Lazier said with a sheepish grin. "I had a hard time getting in there. I was so focused on the race, and then when it ended, they were shooting off fireworks and all that, and I didn't know where I was going."
Once Lazier got his Dallara-Oldsmobile in the right spot, he and car owner Ron Hemelgarn led a raucous celebration of Lazier's first victory since the 1996 Indianapolis 500.
"What a hard-fought battle," said Lazier, who hadn't finished better than fourth since winning Indy. "We needed this bad, so it feels really good."
An hour after the race, Hemelgarn was still clutching the winner's trophy and sporting a huge grin.
"What a wonderful night," Hemelgarn said. "He really got my heart pounding a couple times there when he was driving through the grass and that kind of stuff. But this guy, boy, can he drive."
The race's fourth and final caution, for a spin down the front stretch by Jimmy Kite on lap 163, set up a 38-lap sprint to the finish with Lazier first, Boat second and Scott Goodyear third but at the tail end of the lead lap, directly in front of them.
Lazier found his path repeatedly blocked by Goodyear, enabling Boat to apply heavy pressure from behind. At one point Lazier got his two left-side tires on the infield grass in a failed attempt to maneuver his way around Goodyear.
Goodyear eventually fell behind, allowing Lazier and Boat to lock up in a tight duel from laps 193-196. Boat, a rookie in just his fourth IRL race, passed Lazier on the backstretch on lap 195. But Lazier slipped low as the two came out of the fourth turn on the next lap, and he completed the pass that put him back in the lead as they went down the front stretch of Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked trioval.
The two leaders came up on some lapped traffic as they approached the first turn, and both quickly ducked down low to avoid contact.
Lazier pulled away over the closing laps to a 3.3-second victory, relegating Boat to his third top-10 finish.
There were just two minor wrecks on Charlotte's 24-degree banked layout and nobody was hurt. That meant that for the first time this year, the IRL circuit was able to leave a race venue without leaving a driver behind in the hospital.
Series points leader Davey Hamilton had his string of five consecutive top-10 finishes snapped when he tangled with Roberto Guerrero as the two went through the second turn on lap 143.
Hamilton wound up 16th and, with two events left on this season's 10-race schedule, fell to second place, seven points behind Tony Stewart.
"I wanted to race Tony until the end of this points championship, but we're not done," Hamilton said. "He's going to gain on us, but we're not finished yet."
Stewart, three points behind Hamilton to begin the race, started on the pole and dominated the first third of the 500-kilometer event before falling off the pace. He lost two laps on a green-flag pit stop just past the midway point and was unable to contend again. He finished seventh, three laps down.
At the start of the evening, the field's best hope of keeping pace with Stewart appeared to be Arie Luyendyk, the only driver to qualify within 4 mph of the 217.164 posted by Stewart.
But Luyendyk battled handling problems from the outset and parked his machine after 67 laps. He finished 21st out of 23 cars.
Sadler wins Gateway 300
MADISON, Ill. -- Elliott Sadler overcame sweltering heat to win the inaugural Gateway 300 Busch Grand National race at Gateway International Raceway, his second straight victory in the series.
Sadler, who won at Myrtle Beach, S.C., two weeks ago, became the first repeat winner since Chad Little in 1995.
Sadler, who wrecked his car 45 minutes before qualifying on Friday and was forced into his backup car, held off a last-lap charge from Jason Keller by .223 seconds for his third win of 1997.
"I've got to hand it to this crew," Sadler said. "They really worked hard. This was our backup car and it was awesome. It's great winning two in a row and I would like to make it three next week in Indianapolis."
Drivers in the race not only had to endure temperatures of over 120 degrees inside their cars, but also had to contend with a track that started coming apart due to the extreme heat. Officials estimated that track temperatures reached as high as 160 degrees during the race with the outside mercury reaching over 100 degrees by race end.
"I don't know how we did it (placed second), but we did," Keller said. "It's a big boost for our team, since learning that our sponsor Slim Jim wasn't going to renew our contact for the next season. Hopefully we made a believer of some potential sponsor today."
Due to the poor track conditions, there were 14 cautions for 75 laps, and only 22 cars were running at the end.
Rounding out the top 10 were Dale Shaw, Elton Sawyer, Mike McLaughlin, Tim Fedewa, Jeff Fuller, Mark Green, pole sitter Joe Bessey and Dennis Setzer.
Berger takes German pole
HOCKENHEIM, Germany -- Gerhard Berger upstaged the field in qualifying for the German Grand Prix and won the pole position for his Formula One comeback.
The Austrian, who missed the previous three Grand Prix races because of sinus surgery, drove his Benetton-Renault to the fastest lap on the 4.093-mile Hockenheimring in a vintage display of speed and skill.
Giancarlo Fisichella, the Italian who will replace Berger at Benetton-Renault next year, finished second and will share the front row of the starting grid for today's race (7:45 a.m., ESPN2).
Connolly wins Modified 150
Tim Connolly of Endicott won the Modified Tour Sunoco 150 at Holland Speedway. Other division winners were Tommy Keyes of Fairport in the pro stocks, Neil Hopkins of West Falls in pro modified, Brian Hoffman of South Wales in the 25-lap pro truck, Ed Kicinski of Hamburg in the 15-lap Charger feature and Bob Morgan in the 12-lap figure eight feature.
Putney wins at Lancaster
Bill Putney of East Aurora won his first 30-lap modified stock car feature of the season at Lancaster Speedway. Other divisional winners were "Big" John Julicher in late models, Vince Cappelli in sportsman, Mike Davis in street stocks feature one) and Mark Krupczyk in street stocks feature two.