6-time entrant Gordon will skip IROC series

Daytona notebook

Increased duties, caution part of emotional decision about champions' circuit

February 11, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The International Race of Champions won't look the same at its annual running on Friday.

It will be without the late Dale Earnhardt, the man who won more races (11) and more money ($1,286,960) in the series than anyone while competing over 17 years.

And Jeff Gordon, the four-time Winston Cup Series champion and fixture in the race for six of the past seven years, has decided not to compete.

"I hope everyone recognizes that I had a lot of different emotions. I know what an honor it is to race in the IROC series. ... But there are some new involvements for me at Hendrick Motorsports with the 48 [Jimmie Johnson] team," said Gordon, who is part-owner of the Johnson car. "And, thinking back to what happened last February [Earnhardt's death], I did a lot of talking with Rick [Hendrick] and with [wife] Brooke. I just felt that it was the best thing for me personally to stay focused, to do my job to the best of my ability, to win another championship."

Among the 12 drivers in the four-race series are Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and Busch Grand National champion Kevin Harvick, Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish, Jr., World of Outlaws champion Danny Lasoski, and three-time Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague.

"Jeff came to us at Phoenix last year to tell us of his decision," said George Signore, IROC spokesman. "He just felt the pressure of the load he was carrying was just too much. He didn't have space to breathe. We'll miss him, but we certainly understand. And the field we have is a strong one."

Gordon's decision was something of a relief to Hendrick, his car owner.

"We talked about the possibility [of injury] a lot," Hendrick said. "How do you justify [an injury in that race] to a sponsor? We just filmed three commercials. They've got a whole national program going.

"When we used to get money from a sponsor, it was like their money out of a single Coke machine. Now, it's their major marketing program. ... We've got sponsors who have spent a million dollars on a commercial. What if he goes out and breaks his leg or gets hurt and can't drive? Then we're hurting. It's big business."

Gerhart wins

Bobby Gerhart drove his Gerhart Racing Pontiac to victory in the rain-shortened ARCA 39th Annual Discount Auto Parts 200 yesterday.

Pouring rain on Lap 54 curtailed the 80-lap race with Gerhart in the lead. He averaged 118.594 mph in 1 hour, 8 minutes and 18 seconds. Rick Carelli finished second, and Frank Kimmel, the defending ARCA series champion, was third.

"I was right where we needed to be," Gerhart said. "The car was just getting a little quicker and a little quicker and these tires, they're fantastic tires. I believe we could have run two races on them."

Petty reorganizes

Kyle Petty, 41, the CEO of Petty Enterprises, has been busy in the off-season. He kept his two drivers, John Andretti and Buckshot Jones, but now he has Mike Ege building engines and veteran crew chief Robin Pemberton positioned as vice president and general manager.

"I joke about it all the time," said Petty, who also will continue to drive. "We were the best teams out there running 35th-43rd. [Then], we got pretty good at running 25th-35th. If we can come out this year and run 15th-25th, then that's an improvement.

"It's going to be a slow process. We're not going to go from the back of the pack to [the front]. ... But we've got a plan."

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