Rookie climbs growth chart NASCAR: Kenny Irwin thought he knew all there was to know about auto racing then he learned what it meant to break in as a Winston Cup driver.

September 20, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- Winston Cup rookie Kenny Irwin thought he knew, if not everything, at least most things when he began this season.

"It wasn't that I didn't think I had things to learn," he said. "It was just that I felt I had gone through so much, experienced so much, that I didn't think there would be any surprises."

But today, as he prepares to climb into his Robert Yates-owned Texaco/Havoline Ford for the MBNA Gold 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway, he tells a different story.

Irwin is 26th in points, the Winston Cup rookie leader. It is tenuous, however, with Jerry Nadeau (second) and Kevin LePage (third) running closely behind, with nine races to go to close the gap.

In addition to trying to earn points, Irwin, like his fellow rookie competitors, is trying to learn the ins and outs.

"Robert told me at the start, that as much money as he puts into his racing program, that money can't buy the experience I'd need," said Irwin, who joined Yates after an early career spent in open-wheel racing and the Craftsman Truck Series. "He told me, and it's not that I didn't believe him, it was just that I felt I had been through a lot. I wanted to run up front every week and I found out I just couldn't."

He has learned when he should push his car harder and when he shouldn't, with whom he can race side by side, and with whom he shouldn't.

"I learned that running with Ernie [Irvan] you're likely to get into more trouble than you are running with, say, Dale Earnhardt," said Irwin, 29, who replaced Irvan on the Yates team. "I learned that when you are running 15 on back, you're likely to get in more trouble than you are running 14th or better.

"Why? Because the guys running back there are racing harder than the guys running up front and they're not racing with their heads. They're just trying everything they can to hang on and move up. And I've found, when I'm running back there, I race like that, too. You have to go through all that to gain the experience. Every week I am learning."

He also has learned that there are a lot of people in the garage area willing to stab him in the back. When he has a bad run, there is always someone ready to tell Yates that Irwin isn't a good driver.

"The political deal is as much a part of racing as racing," he said, nodding. "But Robert is so supportive. And it's amazing, he's never driven a race car but he knows when the car is right and when it's not. He sometimes knows before I do what the problem is. It's very nice to have the experience of a car owner like that."

Yates, who spent months looking at Irwin before deciding to hire him, says in an equally prepared car he'd put his driver among the top 14. But he adds that there are days when the learning process is difficult.

"I could have put him in better equipment and I could have gone out and tried to hire a great, know-it-all crew chief," said Yates, who paired his rookie driver with rookie crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe. "But when I started with Davey [Allison], we were both learning together and when we finally figured it out, we appreciated each other. I think that's what we're seeing with Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, and that's what we're working to achieve here.

"When I hired him, I said, 'This guy has the ability if you've got the patience and the dollars.' And I say again, he's got the ability. He's paying his dues and coming along. We're more than halfway through our first season and we're going to make it. We're on the march and I think he's here to stay."

At Dover, there have been lessons to learn, too. In the spring race, Irwin qualified ninth but finished 33rd. Today, he'll be taking off from the 12th position, a little wiser.

In the spring, the car was too loose after qualifying, this time, they've set up the car for the long ride. And this time, Irwin won't be surprised by how long it takes to run 400 miles at Dover.

"We've been better at tracks the second time around," Irwin said, pointing to his top-10 finish at Richmond last week. "But Dover is kind of like Darlington. There is more mental stress. Last time, I thought we were about 200 laps in, and when I looked up at the scoreboard we'd only run 40.

"I don't know what it is that makes Dover so long. But four hours at Dover certainly seems longer than four hours anywhere else."

It's all part of the rookie experience.

MBNA Gold 400

What: Winston Cup NASCAR race

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

Start: 12: 10 p.m. today

TV: TNN

Pole sitter: Mark Martin

Defending champ: Mark Martin

The skinny: Jeff Gordon dominated a year ago, leading all but 25 laps, but lost when he had to pit for gas with nine laps remaining. This year, he has won seven of the past 10 races and is looking for victory No. 11. He is pursuing Richard Petty's modern record (post 1972) of 13 wins in a single season set in 1975.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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