Earnhardt In Control Of IROC Outcome

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    INDIANAPOLIS -- Just like last year, Dale Earnhardt can dictate the outcome of the International Race of Champions series championship.

    Earnhardt goes into Friday's finale of the four-race, all-star series with a 12-point lead over runner-up Mark Martin, who is shooting for record-breaking fifth title.

    A year ago, the two NASCAR Winston Cup stars were also 1-2 heading into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway round of the IROC series.

    Martin won the race, led 32 of the 40 laps on the 2.5-mile oval and got the maximum 26 points. But Earnhardt did just what he had to do to win his third IROC championship, finishing eighth and taking the title by one point.

    "It's a race and anything can happen, but I like where I am," said Earnhardt, who will start last with the field lined up in reverse order of the point standings. "Last year, we cut it kind of close. I hope we can run a little stronger this time. It's tough with these cars being so close."

    Martin, the only four-time IROC champion, doesn't want to share that record with Earnhardt or anyone else.

    "It gets harder to win these races every year," said Martin, whose last title came in 1998. "If Earnhardt wins the championship again this year, it will give him four titles also.

    "I'd really like to get my fifth title so I have a little cushion between us."

    Still, the generally intense Martin plans to lighten up in the 100-lap finale of the 2000 IROC season.

    "This is going to be a fun race," Martin said. "I worked like crazy to do everything I had to do in order to win my fifth championship last year, but I still lost by one point."

    Fellow NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte are tied just two points behind Martin and are the only other drivers among the 12 entries in the all-star race with a realistic chance to take the title if Earnhardt should falter.

    "Tony and Bobby have been good in every race we've run this year, so I don't expect that to change at Indy," Martin said.

    Indy Racing Northern Light Series driver Eddie Cheever Jr. also has an outside chance at the IROC title. If he could accomplish that, he'd be the first open-wheel driver to duplicate Al Unser Jr.'s 1988 feat.

    "I love these IROC races. I have a lot of fun. I'm not going to put any extra pressure on myself," said Cheever, who won at Michigan in June, the first time that has happened since Unser did it in 1997 at Daytona. "I'd like to pick up where I left off at Michigan, though."

    Cheever, who won the Indy 500 in 1998, has a significant amount of experience at IMS, but he doesn't see that as a big advantage.

    "The only thing that's a bit of an advantage for me is that I've done a lot of laps at Indy, and I know what to expect when the weather changes so you can modify your line," Cheever said.

    The drivers from NASCAR's Winston Cup Series and the IRNLS are competing in identically prepared Pontiac Trans-Am race cars.

    Martin, who has never finished better than second in the Winston Cup points race, isn't overly confident of catching Earnhardt on Friday, even though Martin has won nine IROC races, including both run so far at the Indianapolis track.

    "I've learned over the years that you just can't win everything and you just have to accept the results," Martin said. "This year, it will be a little harder for him to win, but there is a lot more competition behind both of us.

    Martin will start alongside Earnhardt in the last row, with Stewart and Labonte just ahead of them.

    Up front will be IRL drivers Mark Dismore and Greg Ray, followed by NASCAR's Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Cheever.

    The IROC race will begin at 2:45 p.m. Friday.
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