Open-wheel drivers look to end title drought at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, July 31, 2001 - The last time it happened, in 1988, Ronald Reagan was still President of the United States. The Internet was a small computer network used by the military, educators and scientists. Now-faded or defunct...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, July 31, 2001 - The last time it happened, in 1988, Ronald Reagan was still President of the United States. The Internet was a small computer network used by the military, educators and scientists. Now-faded or defunct musical acts such as INXS, Steve Winwood, Guns 'N Roses and Rick Astley topped the Billboard pop charts.

"It" is the last time an open-wheel driver has won the True Value IROC series championship. And "it" could happen again Aug. 5 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte leads the True Value IROC XXV standings with 44 points entering the last of four events in racing's all-star series. But 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner and current CART points leader Kenny Brack is second with 43. And 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner and Indy Racing Northern Light Series standout Eddie Cheever Jr. is tied with NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart for third at 39 points.

Brack and Cheever are trying to become the first open-wheel driver to win the series since Al Unser Jr. claimed the title in 1988. NASCAR stock-car drivers have dominated True Value IROC since then, logical since the 12 drivers in the annual series compete in identically prepared stock cars.

This year's IROC finale at Indy starts at 2 p.m. (EST) Aug. 4 with a 40-lap race on the Speedway's historic 2.5-mile oval. Only 11 drivers are competing, as series organizers did not replace late NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt after his death in an accident during the Daytona 500 in February.

There will be plenty of IROC activity Aug. 3 as series competitors and test drivers strive to hone their car setups to reach the series' goal of equal machinery, letting driver skill decide the outcome. IROC practice starts at noon (EST), with final practice at 3:15 p.m.

This year's True Value IROC points race is a toss-up. With a maximum of 26 points awarded to the winner, seven of the 11 drivers in the field are eligible for the championship entering the finale. Just 12 points separate leader Labonte from seventh-place Scott Goodyear, another Indy Racing standout.

Ironically, Goodyear has a mathematical shot at winning the IROC XXV series championship even though he's not competing in the race. Goodyear will miss this round and missed round three on June 9 at Michigan Speedway after suffering a lower-back fracture in the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Unser replaced Goodyear at Michigan and finished second. Series rules dictated that Unser's points were awarded to Goodyear. Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Unser again will drive in Goodyear's place at Indy, with all points going toward Goodyear's totals.

Indy Racing standout Unser could do more than deliver the title to Goodyear at Indy. He also could make plenty of history. A victory would make Unser the winningest driver in IROC history. Unser and Earnhardt are tied with 11 career IROC victories. Unser also could become the first driver to win at Indy in a stock car and Indy-style car, as he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994. Other drivers with a chance at the True Value IROC title besides Labonte, Brack, Cheever, Stewart and Goodyear are NASCAR Winston Cup stars Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett, in fifth and sixth place with 36 and 35 points, respectively.

While predicting the winner of the series championship is quite a challenge, it's a sure bet that there will be a new winner of the race this year at Indy. Mark Martin, the winner of all three IROC races at Indy since the series' Speedway debut in 1998, is not participating this year. Only the top drivers in major series are invited to participate, and Martin finished a disappointing eighth in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings last year. The total purse for the series is $1,025,000 with $250,000 going to the champion, based on points.

IROC AT INDY NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The True Value IROC at Indy starts at 2 p.m. (EST) Aug. 4.
Practice sessions start at noon and 3:15 p.m. Aug. 3.

On the air: The True Value IROC at Indy race will be televised at 7 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 10 on ESPN.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast the True Value IROC at Indy race live at 2:45 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 4.

Tickets: Tickets for the IROC at Indy practices Aug. 3 and the race Aug. 4 are available. Call (317) 484-6700 for information.

-IMS-

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Series IROC
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Scott Goodyear , Kenny Brack , Mark Martin