Unser gets a little help from a friend Earnhardt stays high, CART driver goes low to gain IROC victory

Daytona notebook

February 15, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Once upon an IROC race, Al Unser Jr. and Dale Earnhardt would just as soon put each other into the wall as they would help each other to victory.

But yesterday, in IROC XXI, it was Earnhardt helping Unser to his first career victory on Daytona Speedway's 2.5-mile oval.

"Dale kept me in the lead for the last seven or eight laps," Unser said. "Without him, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Going into the first turn of the last lap, Earnhardt had his chance to drop to the inside and let Mark Martin help him pass the Championship Auto Racing Teams driver. Instead, Earnhardt stayed high, leaving Unser the opportunity to dip low, block Martin and win the race by .122 of a second. Unser averaged 177.602 mph.

Earnhardt finished third.

"When I stopped on pit row on my way to victory lane, Dale stuck his head in the window and told me I hadn't had to make that move, that he would have pushed me all the way to the win," Unser said. "I said, 'I know, I like you too, Dale, but ' I know he's a very competitive person and I didn't want him to have to make the decision."

Yesterday's event was the first of four IROC races this season, and it was a wild one. During a week in which Winston Cup cars have found passing difficult, the IROC cars provided a delight. The series features identically prepared Pontiacs, and eight drivers swapped the lead 16 times over the 40-lap race.

Unser started last in the 12-car field, worked his way to the front and then got shuffled to the rear -- all in the first 20 laps.

"That's when I started looking around for my good buddy, Dale," said Unser, who joins Rusty Wallace as the only drivers to win an IROC race after starting last. "We hooked up and I was able to follow him back to the front. Then I passed him and hoped he'd continue to be my friend."

In 1995, Unser was leading into the third turn of the last lap here when Earnhardt kept his foot on the gas and bumped him out of the way. Earnhardt won and Unser finished 10th.

"Dale and I are good friends," said Unser, who also crashed in his only Daytona 500 in an accident with Earnhardt in 1993. "But there comes a time in every race when only winning matters. Every time he makes a pass on me that no one else has ever made I learn from that. This time I passed him to get the lead and I kept it."

Unser, who has won a record 11 IROC races, is the latest member of his family to win an IROC race at Daytona. Father Al Unser Sr. won here in 1986 and uncle Bobby Unser won in 1975.

He may not be the last Unser to win it, however. His 14-year-old son, "Just Al," already is racing go-carts, and on Feb. 24 Unser and wife are expecting the birth of their second son, to be named Joseph Scott. Unser also has two daughters, Cody and Shannon, 11 and 10, respectively.

Dash to victory

Brian Sockwell drove his Pontiac to a .130-of-a-second victory over Christian Elder in the Discount Auto Parts 200, the 80-lap event for NASCAR Goody's Dash Series subcompacts.

It took Sockwell 1 hour, 47 minutes and 23 seconds to get his first victory. He averaged 111.749 mph.

A year ago, NASCAR would not allow Sockwell to run the Dash race because of a lack of experience. His response was to go to three driving schools and run a limited number of Dash races elsewhere, while running full-time in the Legends Car series.

"I wasn't ready to run here before," he said. "But this was pretty easy compared to some tracks I've raced. I just held it wide-open all the way around."

Borrowing the keys

Loy Allen Jr., who wrecked his car in a Thursday qualifier, will drive Rick Mast's Ford Thunderbird in the 500. It will feature Allen's No. 19, but will retain the Remington Arms colors and decals of Mast.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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