"The Intimidator" is back. At least in the True Value International Race of Champions series.
Dale Earnhardt, at 47, may be on the downhill side of his career, but dont tell that to the other 11 IROC competitors this season. He has whipped them all at Daytona, Talladega and Michigan.
And in the IROC at Indy season finale Aug. 6 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Earnhardt can become the first driver in IROCs 23 seasons to score a sweep of all the races. In the past, only Rusty Wallace in 1991 won three in a row.
The IROC cars tested June 14-16 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and IROC President Jay Signore, and drivers Dave Marcis, Jay Sauter and Andy Hillenburg all marveled at and expressed admiration for how the legend has dominated the series.
"Its pretty amazing when you think about last year when guys were saying he was washed up," Signore said.
"I never thought Dale was washed up, but overall whatever hes done, whatever his approach is, its been pretty phenomenal."
Earnhardt outraced Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag in the opener at Daytona International Speedway in February, slipped by Rusty Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway in April and edged his own son, Dale Jr., at the line on June 11 at Michigan Speedway. And he did all of this without his car once painted his trademark black.
He won in cars painted cream, orange and medium blue.
"I think a lot of it has to do with running against his boy," Hillenburg said. "He wants to beat his boy.
"Thats the way you would want it to be, you know, first time really racing against your son after showing him the ropes and all that stuff. I think thats made a big difference for him."
Marcis, who has done a lot of Earnhardts testing in recent years, also sees a renewed interest in racing shown by the man they called "The Intimidator" in his younger years.
"Hes putting more effort into his qualifying," said Marcis, whose 32 consecutive starts in the Daytona 500 is a record.
"Hes been more willing to test this season. And I think he realizes that his people are willing to do whatever is necessary to do to that race car, but he has to test it and tell em what to do."
Marcis noted that after two-time IROC champion Earnhardt had won two races, he badly wanted to win a third. And, Marcis adds, Earnhardt will be hungrier than ever trying to win that fourth one at Indy for a sweep.
"It should be quite a show, because hell be starting at the rear again," he said.
The points leader starts last in the 12-car field in IROC competition.
Sauter, the veteran from Wisconsin, pointed out that Mark Martin had found some driving secrets with the IROC cars that enabled him to win the last three IROC series championships, but he hasnt been able to handle Earnhardt this time around.
Martin still could win a record fourth straight title. But its a long shot. He is second in the points, trailing 68-48. Martin needs to win the race at Indy, lead the most laps and have Earnhardt finish ninth or lower without being among the top three in total laps led during the race.
"Dale is renewed somewhat, I think, this year," Sauter said. "(His son) probably has got a lot to do with it. Young Junior is doing a hell of a job, too.
"Back to Dale. He knows he can do it. I think weve all known he could do it. With the IROC car, hes in equipment thats more equal. And I think that probably not only has shown him he can still do it, because you get down on yourself - believe me, you do - but hes also shown his shop theyve got to get to work, because hes doing it somewhere else."
One of the keys to Earnhardts IROC success this season is that the races have taken place on superspeedways where drafting plays such an important role, Sauter said. He called Earnhardt the drafting master.
"Drafting (at Indy) is going to be a similar situation," he said.
"Were almost flat out with these cars all the way around. The speed is 160-mph average, which is pretty spiffy for a little car thats only got 400 horsepower. So its going to be a drafting situation here, too."
Earnhardt, who won the Winston Cup race at Talladega this spring and the IROC event, started sixth in the first race, and 12th in the final two. Signore said Earnhardt did not have a dominant car in any of the races.
Earnhardt dueled with his son out of the fourth turn to the checkered flag. Earnhardt bumped Dale Jr., who retaliated trying to slow his fathers momentum. Dad came up quickly and gave his son another shot and they crossed the line with the elder Earnhardt in the lead by a couple of feet.
Signore said Dale Jr. told the media: "Thats the extra experience Dad has. He beat me out and thats the way it should be."
Marcis said the three test drivers - Hillenberg is an Indianapolis native -- were working hard to get the cars in a neutral setup for this years race at Indy. He thought last year, in the Indy debut of the series, that the cars were too tight, creating less passing.
Sauter concurred with Marcis assessment. He said the cars - which hit 200 mph down the main straight - were locked into one long groove. He said that it was the test drivers job to overcome this problem.
"Weve just got to keep digging," he said. "Thats what a test is all about."
IROC AT INDY NOTEBOOK
On TV: IROC at Indy will be televised at 4:30 p.m.
(EDT) Aug. 7 on ABC.
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