#51 Excite@Home driver Eddie Cheever Jr. captured a thrilling victory Saturday at the third round of the 2000 True Value International Race of Champions at the 2-mile Michigan Speedway, defeating NASCAR stars including Dale Earnhardt Sr., Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon to claim his first IROC win and the first for an open-wheel driver since Al Unser Jr. won at Daytona in 1997.
Cheever, a series sophomore whose previous best IROC finish was third place at Indianapolis last year, took the lead from the outside of the front row in the red Pontiac Firebird and withstood strong challenges from Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin to win the 100-mile sprint race by 0.711 seconds. Cheever's dominating performance - he led 23 of 50 laps - was also the first win for an open-wheel racer at the Michigan IROC event since Al Unser Jr. won at the superspeedway in 1995. Cheever currently ranks fifth overall in the 2000 True Value International Race of Champions standings.
Cheever will start Sunday's rescheduled 208-lap Casino Magic 500 at Texas Motor Speedway from the fifth position, marking his highest qualifying spot of the 2000 campaign and matching his best Texas starting position (fifth place at last June's event). Cheever, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 Champion, has qualified in the top ten for every Indy Racing Northern Light Series race this season. The Indy Racing veteran earned his best Texas result at the 1999 season finale, coming home in fourth place after qualifying twentieth.
Cheever (on his IROC win): "It was a lot of fun. It was a very aggressive race, and I enjoyed it a whole bunch. The NASCAR guys are very tough racing drivers and they don't hold anything back. And I can say that I beat Earnhardt.
"It's taken me a long time to learn the techniques, but when you come to Michigan you can work with other people and it's a lot of fun. I almost hit the wall a bunch of times, but fortunately almost doesn't count.
"IROC is very tiring for me. Fifty laps in that is a lot more nerve-wracking for me than 200 laps out here. This is something I know how to do - that is something I don't know how to do. I do not relax when I'm driving the IROC car. I've got a grimace on my face the whole way around. I'm trying to keep it straight, it keeps wanting to slide, and I've got eleven maniacs behind me who want to get even with me. I was just trying to stay out of their way and keep on going. I was going as fast as I possibly could every lap of the race, because I knew that I had probably touched a few cars too many. And I knew that red was a very easy color to remember, and my car was red. I just wanted to get out front as far as I could."
(On competing in the IROC series): "When I got the call from IROC I was very honored. I had followed IROC for a long time and I was very honored to go there. It's hard racing and it's the sort of racing that I like doing. I like to put all the chips down on the table and just go for it, and IROC racing lends itself to that."
(On racing with the NASCAR stars): "It's not true that the NASCAR guys gang up on the open-wheel guys, like everyone thinks - they gang up on everybody. It's like a pack of wolves - if anyone is in distress, they pounce on him. I enjoy IROC racing immensely. It's a really fun series, with some great drivers."
(On a possible future in NASCAR): "I am totally engulfed in trying to get Infiniti its first Indy car win, and with Excite@Home's involvement in our team, I am hopeful that we will have the tools in place to be a dominant force for the next two years. I have looked at NASCAR over the past two years and I haven't found the right opportunity. I have no interest in just participating in NASCAR. If the right opportunity arises to race with a top team, I would seriously consider it, but Indy Racing remains my top priority."