Eddie Cheever's IROC run-in with Dale Earnhardt at Daytona was the stuff of legend. Their rematch would have been today.
By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The only reason he even bothered to watch NASCAR races was Dale Earnhardt.
"He was the epitome of an aggressive racing legend," Eddie Cheever said. "But he was fair."
Only now can the Indy Racing League driver say that with certainty.
But Cheever gets a bit uneasy, fidgety even, when asked about being the villain in one of the final legend-enhancing moments of Earnhardt's career.
The International Race of Champions event today at Talladega Superspeedway would have been billed as the rematch between Cheever and Earnhardt. Instead, it serves only as a remembrance of the Feb. 16 race at Daytona International Speedway.
"That was the greatest IROC race I have ever raced in," said Cheever, a former Formula One driver who lives in Orlando. "He had every right to be angry with me. Yet he wasn't."
The ending was classic Intimidator, the stuff Cheever saves as fodder when his children, Estelle and Eddie, want a bedtime story.
It began with two laps to go.
Cheever and Earnhardt had worked together to get to the front.
"He was doing all the work," Cheever said. "He was telling me right, left, right, left. I thought to myself, "S---, I can't have a better partner to get us up to the front.' He did a few moves and lo and behold with a few laps to go we were first and second."
But when Cheever got overanxious and nudged Earnhardt out of control into the Turn1 grass, he set in motion a raucous chain of events that should be included in the final chapter of each forthcoming Earnhardt book, however many there are.
"What he (Cheever) did was kind of stupid in my mind," said Kenny Brack, a second-year CART driver who was behind Cheever.
Earnhardt saved his car from wrecking but was out of contention as Dale Jarrett won the race. On the cooldown lap, Earnhardt came up from behind Cheever and retaliated with a love tap that sent Cheever spinning.
Cheever received very loud boos, accompanied by a shower of aluminum cans and objects light enough to be tossed by fans in Cheever's direction.
"My crew chief walks over and says, "Wait in the car for a minute and let all this confusion pass,' " Cheever said. "And here comes Earnhardt with a posse of about 100 journalists. I didn't know if he was p----- off or he was happy.
"He says, "I've never hit anybody in the car. Get out!' And I said, "This is going to be fun.' I got out and he just started joking and he says, "What happened on the racetrack, that's over. Let's go have fun, have another great race at Talladega and I'll see you at Talladega.' "
Earnhardt died two days later in a last lap crash in the Daytona 500.
Cheever's slip rankled Ricky Rudd.
During the post-race news conference in February, the Winston Cup regular chastised his open-wheel counterpart.
"He's gone crazy or something," Rudd said. "I think I'll sit down and talk to him. I wouldn't want to run against him."
They never sat down. In fact, Cheever was not even aware Rudd was angry with him until he was told Thursday.
"I don't really know Rudd," Cheever said. "I don't know anything about Rudd. If Rudd is p----- off at me, he knows where to find me."
Cheever does not apologize and will not back off today.
"When you're an open-wheel racing driver and you come down and race against the stock car guys you have two choices: You can participate and be a good boy and just kind of hang out in the middle of the field and finish fifth or sixth," Cheever said. "I have no interest at my point in my career of doing that. If I get a shot at beating the best guy ever to have raced in NASCAR and the only time I'm going to compete against him, I'm sure as hell not going to hold back anything and I didn't. And I probably got a little bit carried away. I probably could've been more careful."
But then Estelle and Eddie would be out a bedtime story and fans would be without a lasting memory.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66 miles).
TV/RADIO: Ch. 13; WQYK-AM 1010.
2000 RACE WINNER: Jeff Gordon.
TODAY: 1 p.m., Busch Grand National Subway 300 (113 laps); 4 p.m., International Race of Champions (38 laps).