Stewart wins Daytona series opener

Feb. 15, 2002 at 4:16 PM
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DAYTONA, Fla., Feb. 15 (UPI) -- The opening round of the

International Race of Champions series had a definite Indy

Racing League flavor Friday.

Although NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart won Friday's race

when he passed Al Unser Jr. with two laps to go, Stewart was the

1997 IRL champion. Unser is currently in the IRL although he

continues to look for a full-time ride this season.

And the driver that finished second to Stewart was Sam Hornish

Jr., the defending IRL champion. Stewart won the race averaging

175.610 miles per hour and beat Hornish by a mere 0.111 seconds.

It was Stewart's second career IROC win and his second

victory during SpeedWeeks. Stewart won last Sunday's Budweiser

Shootout and finished second to Michael Waltrip in the second

Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying race on Thursday.

Stewart tucked himself behind Unser's car for much of the

40-lap, 100-mile race before making his move with two laps to go

and win the opener of a four-race series that pits drivers from

NASCAR and open-wheel racing in identically prepared cars.

"In our Winston Cup car, you really want to be leading," Stewart

said. "With these cars, you want to be second. Being second and

in single file with two to go in these IROC cars is just about a

perfect situation.

"It was just a matter of finding the right time and the right

place to go. Who would have ever thought I'd be comfortable on a

superspeedway, but I'm starting to really like this place."

The IROC cars draft much better than the current rules

configuration of the NASCAR Winston Cup cars. That makes the

racing at Daytona a little more flamboyant in the IROC race.

"It was a fun race (Friday)," Stewart said. "It's always fun

when you know you're racing with 11 other cars that are just as

even as yours and it's up to you to do your job behind the

steering wheel."

Unser, who left CART after the 1999 season to join the IRL, led

23 laps. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner started sixth and

took the lead on the fourth lap.

Stewart attempted to make a pass for the lead on the 39th lap

when he pulled low alongside Unser. The cars behind Stewart

followed as Hornish, IRL veteran Scott Sharp and three-time

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague followed.

That left Unser helpless in the draft and his bid to break a tie

with Dale Earnhardt for most victories in IROC came to a sudden

end. Unser is tied with the driver who was killed in last year's

Daytona 500 with 11 IROC wins each.

In a series that is heavily favored toward NASCAR racers,

Hornish had a fantastic debut by finishing second in his first

IROC event.

"The first 10 laps, I got hit about 10 times," said the

22-year-old Hornish. "It was a lot of fun after that. I was

hesitating: I kind of wanted to push Al, but every time I had

been on the outside I got stuck out there by myself. So I

figured second was better than going back to fifth, and I

decided to just push Tony."

Friday was Hornish's first race in a stock car.

"I take it the exact same seriousness that I drive my IRL car,"

Hornish said. "I don't like to lose in anything. I'm going to

put as much effort as I can to be able to be up front. I don't

like to finish in the back so I'm going to have to keep aspiring

to do both series that I'm running well and in the same fashion

and try to stay up front as much as I can."

Hornish and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Helio

Castroneves collided on the first lap of the race. Because the

incident happened on the opening lap, Castroneves was able to

get into a backup car at the restart of the race.

"I just tried to push Tony (Stewart) by, helping him on the

outside line," Hornish recalled. "He had to come down, I don't

know what for. But he moved down right in front of Helio and I

don't know if it took the air off of Helio's car, and he just

kind of pinched me in between him and the wall."

Stewart realized his margin of victory was a close one.

"Once we got by Al Jr., it was just a matter of making sure I

could stay in the lead," Stewart said. "I was watching the

mirrors and making sure I didn't give Sam an opportunity to get

a run at me."

Sharp, who began his racing career as a sports car driver before

one season in CART, has been a regular in the IRL since the

series began in 1996. His third-place finish is the best of his

IROC career.

"I actually had a great time," Sharp said. "It was so much fun.

Everyone said IROC is a blast. The cars were really well

balanced today and the guys did a great job. We got more and

more confident as we went on. It was a lot rougher that I

thought it would be. But when they gave it to me, I tried to

just give it back a little bit."

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