INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Buddy Rice was the busiest driver in the final practice before the Indianapolis 500. His Cheever Racing crew was the best rewarded.

The rookie driver, whose 54 laps were more than double the number driven by all but one other driver in the two-hour practice session, survived four rounds of eliminations and beat defending champion Helio Castroneves in the annual Pit Stop contest Thursday.

The crew, headed by team manager Max Jones and chief mechanic David Meehan, changed all four tires and simulated a refueling in 8.840 seconds to earn shares of a $30,000 first prize from a purse of $80,000.

``I just have to hit my marks, that's the main key,'' Rice said. ``But basically these guys put in all the hard work. They put in all the time and practice at the shop and they're the ones that make it happen.''

In the 27-year history of the pit competition, the only other rookies whose crews won were Michael Andretti in 1984, Jacques Villeneuve in 1994 and Kenny Brack in 1997.

Rice beat veteran Robbie Buhl in the first round and earned a forfeit victory in the quarterfinals when Andretti's car had a throttle problem. He then beat Al Unser Jr. by more than a half-second in the semifinals and Castroneves by more than seven-tenths of a second.

Castroneves, who had a first-round bye, advanced with victories over Brack and Tony Kanaan. His runner-up time of 9.134 seconds was well off the record 8.555 seconds his crew set last year.

Other crew members for Rice are Robbie Fast, spotter; Todd Tapply, right front tire; Josh Junge, left front; Craig McCain, right rear; Joe Hedges, left rear; Rob Channell, jack; Kelly Loewen, engineer; and Dave Bishop, fueler.

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HARD HIT: The only casualty Thursday was a tire inadvertently left on pit road.

``When you are this close to the tires sitting flat on the ground, you can't see them from the cockpit. I didn't think anything was there,'' Al Unser Jr. said.

Unser sped out of the pit at the start of practice and hit the tire, flipping it into the air and sending it rolling through the pits. No one was injured, and there was no damage to Unser's car.

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PENSKE CONNECTION: Car owner Roger Penske doesn't believe in luck, figuring that hard work and meticulous preparation have brought him a record 12 Indianapolis 500 victories.

``I'm sure people are gunning for us, but we're gunning for 32 other cars,'' Penske said Thursday. ``To me, it's another race, and we're as prepared as we have ever been.''

Still, if he did believe in omens ...

Penske driver Helio Castroneves, the two-time defending champion, will be starting from the pole in car No. 3. The last time that car number was on the pole was in 1991, when Rick Mears went on to win the race. Before that, the last car No. 3 on the pole was in 1981, when Bobby Unser won.

Both of those cars were also owned by Penske.

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SARAH'S SCHOLARS: Even in high school, Sarah Fisher's focus was on racing, and on education.

``I had to maintain at least a B average in school in order to be able to race,'' she said. ``I didn't participate in school-sponsored sports, and there wasn't any kind of scholarship for kids like me. I wanted to be able to give something back to kids who also excel at something outside of school activities.''

So on Thursday, she announced the first two scholarship winners from more than 70 entries submitted by seniors at her alma mater, Teays Valley High School in Ashville, Ohio, and six Indianapolis-area schools. Applicants had at least a B average and wrote an essay about how their extracurricular activities will help them in life.

This year's winners, who received $3,000 college scholarships and TAG Heuer Link watches from one of Fisher's sponsors, are Bethany Larue of Teays Valley and Jennifer Lindstrom of Indianapolis Ben Davis.

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SPARKPLUGS: Golf course designer Pete Dye, an Indiana native whose more than 100 courses include the speedway's Brickyard Crossing, waved the green flag to start Thursday's practice. ``I've never been this nervous in my life,'' Dye said. ... Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and 1983 Indy winner Tom Sneva also were guests in the pits. ... Scott Dixon, the fastest among nine rookie qualifiers, received a $5,000 check and his name engraved on the Fastest Rookie trophy, which will be displayed in the Hall of Fame Museum. ... Kenny Brack and his rock band, the Subwoofers, performed in the plaza behind the scoring tower after Thursday's pit stop contest. Brack plays the guitar. ... Al Unser Jr. will wear a specially painted helmet that he will sign and put up for auction to benefit the Unser Children's Discovery Center Foundation of Albuquerque, N.M. ... Longtime engine builder Rick Long received the annual ``True Grit'' award and a check for $10,000. Sarah Fisher's chief mechanic, Bill Miller, received the Clint Brawner ``Mechanical Excellence'' award and $5,000.