INDIANAPOLIS -- Dale Earnhardt showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday with a clean-shaven upper lip. His trademark mustache was gone for the first time in 17 years, a sacrifice to his determination not to be beaten -- at anything.
"Michael (Waltrip) made me shave it off," Earnhardt said. "We were down in the Bahamas on Saturday, snorkeling, and he was getting down deeper than I was. I was drowning."
The bushy lip, it turned out, prevented a tight seal between his mask and his face.
"I had to do something to get down there with him. I had to shave so I could get deeper.
"I don't think it'll affect any of my racing skills," he said. "It didn't in '82, anyway. We still won races."
Practice for the fourth and final round of this year's International Race of Champions series began Wednesday. Earnhardt won each of the first three races and on Friday could become the first driver to sweep all four races since the series began in 1973.
Practice and qualifications for Saturday's Brickyard 400 Winston Cup race will begin today. Earnhardt, the 1995 Brickyard winner, has won only one race this season and is seventh in series points.
"We've qualified pretty good and raced pretty good in the last several races," Earnhardt said. "I want to be up front racing. That strategy of racing for the top five and racing for the win is where everybody wants to be. It seems like our program is going that way."
Jeff Gordon, who turned 28 Wednesday, became the first two-time Brickyard winner last year and is just ahead of Earnhardt in sixth place in the season standings. The leader is Dale Jarrett, who has won three races and has used consistent finishes to build a 254-point lead over Mark Martin.
Saturday's race on the 2 1/2 -mile, low-banked Speedway oval is the 20th of the 34 Winston Cup races this season.
"This race track is a track that anything can happen at," Earnhardt said. "Guys had trouble here and lost races, guys had great pit stops and won races, like we did in '95. And gas mileage has won races, like Ricky Rudd (in 1997).
"Strategy plays out at the end. ... It could come down to that one last stop and whether you take tires or not, whether you just take a little gas or what."
Earnhardt also was the 1990 and 1995 IROC champion. Among the 11 other drivers in this year's series is his son, Dale Jr., who lost to his father by .007 second in the last race at Michigan Speedway in June.
Others in IROC this year are Gordon, Martin, Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton from NASCAR; Eddie Cheever and 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack from the Indy Racing League; and Adrian Fernandez and Greg Moore from Championship Auto Racing Teams. All drivers are in identically prepared IROC cars.
Moore, the 1995 Indy Lights champion and fifth in the CART series last season, hit the second-turn wall early in Wednesday's IROC practice. He was not hurt.
"It's unique to race in IROC," the elder Earnhardt said. "To win is also great. To come in and win three races already this year and maybe set a record by winning four is pretty unique. But guys like Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and these guys are not wanting that to happen. Then my kid's in there, aggravating the hell out of me."