ATLANTA - Andy Pilgrim, a longtime road racer, didn't seem impressed with Dale Earnhardt's racing credentials when the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., started a three-day test session for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
"According to Andy, I've been taking the bypass around the track," Earnhardt said.
The bypass is the 2.5-mile oval at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. The "business" route is a 3.56-mile road course that utilizes both the high-banked oval common to stock cars and the twisting road course familiar to exotic sports cars.
The Earnhardts, along with Pilgrim, conducted a three-day test at Daytona this week to prepare for the twice-around-the-clock race on Feb. 3-4. The trio will take turns driving a factory-backed Chevrolet Corvette C5-R on the 11-turn course. They will compete in the GTS division and likely won't be able to compete with the faster cars in the Prototype and Prototype II classes.
"With the Corvette, you have to be a lot more technical and professional with your shifting - your downshifting especially," Earnhardt Jr. said. "In a Winston Cup car, we can be a lot more rugged. With these cars, there's one right way to do things and 50 wrong ways. But the cars are a lot more forgiving in the corners if you overdrive them a bit."
Winston Cup drivers have competed in the nation's premier sports car race before. Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Derrike Cope, Terry Labonte and Kyle Petty all have participated in the kickoff to the three-week-long Speed Weeks at Daytona, which concludes Feb. 18 with the Daytona 500.
Petty will make a return to the 24 Hours of Daytona this year, teaming with Leo Hinckey, Peter Baron and Gian Luigi Buitoni in a Porsche GT3RS.
Earnhardt certainly is the best at getting around the "bypass" at Daytona. He's got 34 victories on the tri-oval, including the 1998 Daytona 500.
"This is going to be the first time I've taken the `business' route around Daytona," he said.
The Earnhardts tested their sports car at Sebring, Fla., last November as both tried to get more familiar with the nuances of a single-seat car that requires both left- and right-handed turns.
"I think I have a good idea what the mindset of the race is," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's an endurance race. Obviously, there's some very good road-course drivers that we're racing against. I would never fathom the ability to be able to outrun them man to man, so I think the best thing for me to do is be more conservative with the car and not tear it up much."
RETIREMENT FROM RETIREMENT:
One year away from racing was long enough for Indy Racing League driver Arie Luyendyk.
The Dutchman will return for this year's Indianapolis 500 in an Oldsmobile-powered Treadway-Hubbard Racing G-Force, one year after he retired from the sport.
"My desire to keep racing at Indianapolis has never stopped," Luyendyk said. "You can put it this way: I'm coming back for the love of the sport, and especially the love of Indy."
Luyendyk has won the Indy 500 twice, including in 1997, when he drove for Treadway-Hubbard Racing.
"I have told Arie all along that I would support whatever decision he made," car owner Fred Treadway said. "Now that Arie has decided to drive again in the Indianapolis 500, I am very happy he will do so with Treadway Racing."
Luyendyk holds five track records: a single-lap qualifying speed of 237.498 mph set in 1996; a four-lap qualifying speed of 236.986 mph set in 1996; the 500-mile average speed of 185.981 mph while winning the 1990 race; the single-race payday of $1,568,150 in 1997; and the race's all-time earnings mark of more than $5.5 million.
As expected, Junie Donlavey stuck with driver Hut Stricklin for the 2001 season. A week ago, he and sponsor Hill Brothers Coffee had to pick from among Sticklin, Jeff Fuller, Rick Mast and Greg Sacks. ... The NASCAR Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., has closed. New Year's Eve was the final day of operation for one of four restaurants with a racing theme. Local authorities claimed parking problems in the downtown area and a lack of tourists were to blame for the cafe's failures. ... Jeff Gordon will co-host "Live with Regis" on Jan. 15.
Reach Don Coble