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IROC: Indy Racing League drivers have more strength in numbers

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
INDIANAPOLIS-- Eddie Cheever Jr. ended a 13-race losing streak for open-wheel drivers in the True Value International Race of Champions last June at Michigan Speedway.

Cheever is back for a return engagement in the popular four-race series that matches 12 of the country's best drivers in stock-car races at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Michigan Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The first race takes place Feb. 16 at Daytona, and the finale is Aug. 4 at Indy.

In recent years, NASCAR stars have dominated the IROC series because of their familiarity with drafting on the high-banked ovals. The only open-wheel drivers to win in 18 races on the 2.5-mile Daytona oval are Bobby Unser (1975), Mario Andretti (1978), Al Unser (1986), Scott Pruett (1991) and Al Unser Jr. (1997).

Al Unser Jr.'s victory was the last in the series for open-wheel competitors until Cheever pulled off his upset last year. Cheever was one of just three open-wheel drivers in the field, as nine NASCAR drivers completed the lineup.

This time the open-wheelers may have a better shot. They will be outnumbered only by a 7-5 count by their NASCAR counterparts. And it would have been an even 6-6 if Gil de Ferran hadn't been injured in a CART testing crash and replaced for the opening race by Tony Stewart.

Of course, open-wheelers can claim Stewart, too, since he won the Indy Racing championship in 1997. CART's Kenny Brack, also among the select 12 this season, was Indy Racing champion in 1998 and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1999.

Cheever will have three of his Indy Racing Northern Light Series compatriots joining him this year. Kelley Racing's Mark Dismore returns for his second appearance in the series, while Indy Racing Northern Light Series defending champion and 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier of Hemelgarn Racing and veteran Scott Goodyear make their stock-car racing debuts. Goodyear will be Cheever's teammate this year at the Indianapolis 500.

"I just think all of us have to keep our heads about us and remember that we've got five guys and can form our own line and cooperate with each other, and not try to pull the rug out from each other," Dismore said.

Goodyear, who had to pass on IROC invitations in both 1993 and 1994 because of scheduling conflicts, agrees with Dismore's strategy.

"Maybe the smart thing for us to do in the future is to hook on all six open-wheel guys and run the high line or the low line, go 35 laps or whatever it is, and wait and see what happens," he said. "We'll wait and see. But I'm delighted (to be part of the series)."

Cheever has another goal: not to get shuffled to the back of the pack. He learned that lesson last year at Daytona.

"I was in the lead for four or five laps," he said. "All of a sudden somebody started waving his hand behind me and I thought, 'It was OK for you to stay up in front.' What they were saying was, 'Let's get this guy to the back of the line.' That's where I ended up."

Cheever had a plan last year similar to Jeff Gordon's in his first Daytona 500: Follow Dale Earnhardt. The only problem was, Cheever abandoned that strategy in the middle of the race.

"It was the biggest mistake I made," Cheever said.

"We did about 15 laps together. He was going high, I went high. He went low, I went low. I thought I saw a better train, a better group of cars, and I said, 'Oh, this Earnhardt's not going anywhere.' I changed trains and ended up last. So I learned a lesson."

Earnhardt won the race.

In a recent practice session, Brack tried Cheever's plan after Earnhardt told him, "You've got to stay behind me in order to learn 'em (tricks)."

Brack laughed and replied: "That's probably how it's going to be (in the race), huh? I've got to get behind you."

Since it was Lazier's initial stock-car racing experience during testing, he put his faith in his veteran instructors, Dave Marcis, Jim Sauter, Dick Trickle and Andy Hillenburg.

"I'm paying strict attention to these guys," Lazier said. "They test these cars and are the finest at what they do. I've always been a big stock car and Winston Cup fan. This is really fun for me. It's really a neat deal, and these guys are taking good care of me."

Lazier added: "This is incredible. These cars stick wherever you go. They've got so much grip."

The versatile Lazier in a three-week period will have driven a sports car in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, an Indy Racing Northern Light Series car in testing and a stock car in IROC.

Goodyear, like Lazier, considers this a learning experience, especially mastering the drafting skills of stock-car racing.

"We do something completely different in our single-seat cars," Goodyear said. "You want to make it happen all very quickly, get the advantage of the dirty air, slip-stream out, get by, get in front of the guy and just move on to the next target.

"And here it seems like it's a much more patient game, much more methodical. You have to partner up with people. I've learned a little bit about that."

He spent much of the previous week at the track practicing, but only with four or five other cars.

"I'm sure it's going to be much different when you've got 12 people out there all vying for a race win," Goodyear said. "And also with guys who do this day in, day out."

Dismore anticipates a line where two-thirds of the drivers are experienced with restrictor-plate racing and three or four others "not knowing what the heck is going on."

"That in itself is going to make it more interesting," he said. "It's not just a pure play where you've got the one neophyte out there who doesn't know what's going on and when the time comes (to make a move) he gets left holding the bag."

In addition to Earnhardt and Stewart, other NASCAR Winston Cup drivers participating will be Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Ricky Rudd. Defending NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division champion Jeff Green also is in the field.

Lazier, Cheever and Brack all have won the Indianapolis 500, while Earnhardt, Labonte, Jarrett and Rudd have won the Brickyard 400.

Text Provided By Paul Kelly

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