INDIANAPOLIS -- The most surprised driver and possibly the happiest after Thursday's opening round of Brickyard 400 qualifications was David Green.
A lap at 178.902 mph put him third in the lineup for Saturday's race, behind Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. In his first 17 Winston Cup starts this season, Green's average starting position was 34th.
"It's a pleasant surprise," he said. "Practice was good, but sometimes you try a little too hard and you lose some seconds. It probably happened to us a few times. I'm tickled to death."
Green, 41, a former Busch Series champion, was 35th in his only previous Brickyard start in 1997. He also finished a career-best 16th twice that year, at Charlotte and Talladega.
"We tested good here, our practice was good. I knew that unless I messed up, we'd have us a top-10," he said. "Lo and behold we ended up third. It wasn't a pretty lap, but we've worked hard to get to this point. It gets nerve-wracking at times, but I promise you I'll sleep well tonight."
Green, who also had a career-high third-place start at Rockingham last year, currently is 39th in the Winston Cup points.
"We're going to get through the tough times. This is a good shot in the arm," he said. "But it's two different ball games, and we just hope we can stick with them there on Saturday and see what we can do."
IROC MASTER: Dale Earnhardt, who qualified 18th at 177.971 mph, will be trying to tie Gordon's record two Brickyard victories. Before that, though, Earnhard will try to become the first driver to sweep all four International Race of Champions events in the same year.
The 1999 series ends on Friday. Earnhardt, a seven-time time Winston Cup champion, has already won the IROC races this season in Daytona, Talladega and Michigan.
The trio of victories have come by a total of 0.189-seconds. In his first two wins, he led only the final lap in each.
His most recent win, at Michigan Speedway, was by 0.007-seconds over Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- the first time father and son have finished 1-2.
"That finish will be a memory that I will cherish for a lifetime," the elder Earnhardt said. "To race against each other for a win just doesn't happen every day.
"We've had a big time in the IROC series this year. It isn't easy to win a race with 11 other champions racing against you. In all the IROC races I've watched and have raced, I don't remember any closer finishes than what we've had in all three races this year."
Overall, Earnhardt has 10 IROC victories and has won the series championship twice, in 1990 and 1995.
The all-star series matches 12 drivers from stock cars, open-wheel cars and sports cars in the 100-mile events using identically-prepared racers.
Martin has won a series-record three straight championships and four in the last five years. But he trails Earnhardt by 20 points heading into the finale and has no chance for another title if Earnhardt finishes eighth or better.
The series winner will collect $225,0000 from the total purse of $760,000.
SPEED IS RELATIVE: Among the 12 drivers in Friday's IROC race are former Indy 500 winners Eddie Cheever and Kenny Brack, accustomed to much higher speeds in their IRL cars.
Still, Thursday's practice wasn't exactly a leisurely cruise.
"I never thought 165 mph would feel so fast around Indy, but it is," said Cheever, the 1998 Indy winner.
"I took 14 laps this morning," he said. "I wanted to go out and drive in traffic, but that didn't happen. The whole key here is it's going to take good tires."
ANOTHER BRICK: Speedway president Tony George on Thursday presented Gordon with one of the 3.2 million bricks that once covered the 2´-mile track.
The original surface was crushed stone and tar, but the track was paved with bricks because of many accidents in pre-Indy 500 races of 1909. Parts of the track were resurfaced with asphalt beginning in 1937. Now, all that's left of the original brick is a 36-inch strip across the track at the start-finish line.
George has given a similar brick to the winner of each Brickyard race. Gordon, who won the inaugural race in 1994, is the only driver with two bricks.
RACING SWOOSH: Nike has announced its plans to get involved in auto racing by designing and making shoes specifically for drivers, pit crewmen and garage staff.
The athletic footware and apparel company introduced the program at the Speedway on Thursday, saying it will officially begin in February 2000 at the Daytona 500.
Nike has signed Winston Cup drivers Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Adam Petty and CART star Al Unser Jr. to build the new marketing program around.
Mac McDevitt, general manager of branded athletic for Nike USA, said, "We want to look at this sport like other sports. These guys are athletes. Why not treat them like world-class athletes and build shoes to their exact specifications."
McDevitt said the company has been working quietly on the racing project for more than 2´ years.