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EARNHARDT STILL KNOWS HOW TO INTIMIDATE THE OPPOSITION

It's a good thing Dale Earnhardt wasn't really mad.

The seven-time Winston Cup champion survived being banged into a wall at 185 mph, then later kept his car under control speeding through the infield grass near the end of Friday's opening round of the International Race of Champions Series.

Earnhardt ended up seventh, and the driver who forced him into the grass, Indy Racing League star Eddie Cheever, needed a place to hide.

To the delight of the crowd, The Intimidator gave the bumper on Cheever's car a whack on the cool-down lap, sending him spinning down the back straightaway. Winner Dale Jarrett became the forgotten man.

Earnhardt's retaliation was different from the love tap the defending IROC champ gave Cheever's bumper in salute after Cheever outdrove him and the rest of the NASCAR contingent for a victory last June at Michigan International Speedway.

"That was a five, this was a 500," Cheever said. "I thought it was an earthquake. I have no rivalry with Dale Earnhardt. I've got enough problems in life. I don't need that."

Earnhardt said: "IROC racing is supposed to be fun. I didn't think he would do that on purpose. That's why I'm not really mad.

"I just wanted to let him know I was a little upset and that I was still around," he said, referring to the post-race bump. "He got to do a couple of doughnuts. It didn't hurt anything."

The 80,000 raucous spectators at Daytona International Speedway only had eyes for Earnhardt, watching with anticipation as he climbed out of his green car -- heavily taped from his meeting with the concrete -- and strode back to where Cheever was standing beside his car.

There was a smile on Earnhardt's face as he gently grabbed Cheever by the side of the head, pulled him close and whispered something.

"Earnhardt didn't call me an idiot. It was something else, not many syllables, but not an idiot," said an embarrassed Cheever, winner of the 1998 Indianapolis 500.

Cheever faded from the lead after bumping past Earnhardt two laps from the end and went on to finish third in the 40-lap all-star race.

Jarrett, the defending Daytona 500 champion, beat Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd to the finish line by the length of the hood on his Pontiac Trans-Am, winning his first IROC race.

Kenny Brack, representing CART, finished just behind Cheever in fourth, followed by defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte.

There was one big wreck just past the race's halfway point. Jeff Burton ignited the melee when he skidded up the banking and slammed Earnhardt's car into the wall on lap 27.

IRL stars Mark Dismore and Buddy Lazier got caught up in the accident. Burton, Lazier and Dismore were all knocked out of the race, but Earnhardt's fenders were cobbled together with wide strips of bright blue racer's tape and he was able to continue.
Despite complaints from Ford teams, NASCAR decided Friday against ordering aerodynamic changes in the cars for Sunday's Daytona 500.

NASCAR officials were probably swayed by two thrilling qualifying races Thursday, including Mike Skinner beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. by about 3 inches in a 125-mile event.

Ford teams believe their cars are at a disadvantage against the Chevrolets, Pontiacs and the new Dodges. They blame two small metal strips attached to the roof and spoilers, which were mandated by NASCAR in an attempt to promote closer racing.

"That's fine," said Rusty Wallace, who drives the No. 2 Ford Taurus. "We know what we're up against."

NASCAR impounded each brand's top-finishing car from last weekend's Budweiser Shootout and shipped them to Lockheed's wind tunnel in Marietta, Ga. Technical director Gary Nelson said the tests were inconclusive.

Three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who drives a Chevy Monte Carlo, scoffed at the Ford complaints. He said the only disadvantage for the Ford teams was a lack of cooperation among its drivers.

"The Chevy teams work well together," he said. "I've not seen a lot of Fords work well together. They kind of split off on their own. That's what is hurting them."
Joe Ruttman, the oldest driver in the NASCAR truck series, gave the youngest racer an education about Daytona.

Ruttman, 56, held off 20-year-old Ricky Hendrick on Friday to win the season-opening Florida Dodge Dealers 250 and become the oldest winner of a stock car race at Daytona International Speedway.

Hendrick and Scott Riggs, running second and third on the final lap, tried to gang up on Ruttman. But the driver who calls himself an "old man" moved to the low side on the backstretch and blocked them.

That broke their momentum, and Ruttman held them off by four truck-lengths for his 12th career victory.

The former Winston Cup driver had been chasing a win on the track since finishing third 19 years ago in the Daytona 500.

"I wish I could have done it 30 years ago," Ruttman said. "This is what keeps me young, outwitting these guys."

The event was the second for the trucks at Daytona.

Last year, Mike Wallace's victory in the inaugural race was overshadowed by Geoffrey Bodine's spectacular, fiery wreck. Bodine, another driver, and nine fans were injured when his truck flew into the fence on the frontstretch and spewed debris into the crowd.

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