Earnhardt can't help but smile in closing on unparalleled feat

Man who loves challenge tries for an IROC sweep at Indianapolis tomorrow

August 05, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Dale Earnhardt has this wicked, little-boy grin when he's feeling playful.

During this season's International Race of Champions series, the grin has been ever-present.

"Little smile?" said Jeff Gordon. "You mean that smirk. Definitely. We've all seen it, especially when he puts the IROC uniform on. But, hey, he's got something to smile about. I can't seem to win even one of these things."

This season, IROC has been all Earnhardt. He has won the first three of the scheduled four races. No one has done that before, and that means no one has ever had the chance to win all four. But Earnhardt does tomorrow at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even if he doesn't win the race, he will win the IROC series title by finishing eighth or better.

The premise of the IROC series is to take 12 of the world's top drivers from different types of racing, put them in identically prepared race cars, eliminate the variables -- the pit stops, qualifying, the driver setup of the car -- and let them race.

Equality is the key.

"And these cars are pretty equal," said Earnhardt, who shaved off his trademark mustache Saturday for the first time in 17 years. "The three races I've won, I've won in three different cars."

And equal they always seem to have been. In the previous 22 seasons, only two other drivers -- Mark Donohue (1973-74, when the series was held from October to February) and Rusty Wallace (1991) -- won as many as three races, and only Wallace has won three straight. But he lost the first race in the 1991 series.

"It's really, really tough to win three," said Wallace. "So even if Dale doesn't win the fourth -- and I think the odds are against it -- I congratulate him. What a racer."

Jay Signore, IROC's president and the man who oversees the preparation of the IROC Pontiacs, has been here all week testing cars. Tuesday, Earnhardt and open-wheel drivers Eddie Cheever, Kenny Brack, Greg Moore and Adrian Fernandez showed up to practice on Indy's 2.5-mile oval.

"In one respect, what Earnhardt has done is phenomenal," Signore said. "In our 23rd year and no one has ever done this. I think that's important to him.

"But, ideally, you'd like to see a different winner each race."

Still, from Signore's point of view, the most important thing is that the cars are all prepared well and that none suffers a mechanical problem during the race.

Signore said the cars are not the same as Winston Cup or Bush Grand National stock cars. The horsepower is not as high. The down-force package that affects the car's handling is different. The idea is to make them comfortable for drivers coming from all different kinds of cars.

"You have to physically learn how to drive them," Signore said. "And Earnhardt has been coming to practice in them more this year than he ever has."

Earnhardt is known for his talent in super-speedway races in which restrictor plates -- gadgets that hold down speeds by limiting the amount of air that reaches the engine -- are used. The IROC cars are similar, and this year the series has been running on super speedways.

"I've watched him closely," said Cheever, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner. "The guy really has a unique ability to understand the drafts. In one of the races, I was in the pack watching and I saw what he can do.

"He can make the cars in front of him move, he can make them do what he wants them to do. I think he's very talented, very aggressive and maybe lucky. But mostly, it's his ability that has him winning."

Earnhardt, 48, won at Daytona International Speedway, leading only the final lap. He won at Talladega Super Speedway, again leading only the final lap. And he won on the big, sweeping two-mile oval at Michigan Speedway. But in that one, he drove a thrilling race against his son, Dale Jr.

"IROC has always been a big deal, a nice deal to me," Earnhardt said, as he passed some time watching a tape of "Saving Private Ryan" in his team's truck. " It's always been unique. And this year, with my son in it, it has been more special.

"Dale Jr.'s first two races were rugged, but the last one, racing against him for the win -- really, that was pretty awesome. The kid was out there bumping fenders with me, and he could have beaten me, though I'm not ready for that and may never be. But it sure was fun."

This race will cover 100 miles (40 laps) and every driver out there will be trying to stop Earnhardt.

"I'm afraid so," said Mark Martin, who has won the last three IROC titles. "I know people got tired of seeing me win, and no one will work with me any more. I'm pretty sure they're not going to work with him. And I'd be surprised if he managed to win. But Dale's certainly enjoying this. He can stand up and say, `I won every IROC. I'm not done.' And you know what? I don't blame him. Let him crow."

It would be Earnhardt's third IROC title. It would also tie him with Al Unser Jr. as the winningest driver to compete in the series, with 11 wins each.

Earnhardt is slow to say what sweeping this IROC series would mean. He'll tell you it's "another accomplishment" and it's "still fun" to try to do something no one else has ever done.

But, finally, that little grin reappears and the truth comes out.

"When people are talking about `He's over the hill,' it's nice to go out there and beat them on the race track," he said. "I've won three in a row. I'm not over the hill yet."

Lineup

(Current IROC points in parentheses) 1. Eddie Cheever, IRL (14 points)

2. Jeff Burton, NASCAR Winston Cup (18)

3. Dale Jarrett, NASCAR Winston Cup (21)

4. Adrian Fernandez, CART (22)

5. Greg Moore, CART (22)

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR Busch Series (25)

7. Kenny Brack, IRL (29)

8. Jeff Gordon, NASCAR Winston Cup (32)

9. Bobby Labonte, NASCAR Winston Cup (39)

10. Rusty Wallace, NASCAR Winston Cup (40)

11. Mark Martin, NASCAR Winston Cup (48)

12. Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR Winston Cup (68)

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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