IROC XXVI (partially lost footage of stock car races; 2002)
The California race advertised as part of the 2002 NAPA Auto Parts 500 race program.
Status: Partially Lost
IROC XXVI was the 26th International Race of Champions (IROC) season. Occurring from 15th February to 3rd August 2002, Kevin Harvick of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series would claim the title and $250,000 in prize money, becoming the sixth IROC rookie to achieve the crown.
As is tradition with IROC seasons, IROC XXVI consisted of twelve invited drivers deemed among the best of their respective motorsports series. Among these included NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers Harvick, Dale Jarrett, defending champion Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Jack Sprague, and Sterling Marlin; IRL's Buddy Lazier, Helio Castroneves, Al Unser Jr., Scott Sharp, and Sam Hornish Jr.; and World of Outlaws' Danny Lasoski. A few alterations were made to the race schedule; whereas races 1 and 4 would remain at Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway respectively, the California Speedway would replace the Talladega Speedway for round 2. It marked the first time the track appeared on the IROC calendar since 1998. Additionally, the Michigan International Speedway was dropped in favour of the Chicagoland Speedway, which at the time had only recently opened.
The opening Daytona race occurred on 15th February, with Sharp starting in pole position. Sharp led the opening lap, but would be passed by Marlin on lap 2. During the early-to-mid stages, seven drivers battled for the lead, contributing towards nine official lead changes. Eventually, Unser Jr. secured the lead at Stewart's expense, leading from laps 21 to 38. However, Stewart, despite facing continual pressure from Hornish Jr., would still remain in contention, and eventually re-passed Unser Jr on the Superstretch. Hornish Jr. also passed Unser Jr., and duelled with Stewart for the remaining laps. Despite trying to slipstream pass his opponent on the final lap, Hornish Jr. was ultimately .111 seconds off, allowing Stewart to claim victory. Sharp took third, in a race that saw no retirements. Post-race, Stewart regarded the race as fun, noting that Unser Jr. "was able to give us a lot of big steam and big momentum and a couple of good pushes there toward the end that helped us win this thing."
The second race took place at California on 27th April. As per IROC's reverse order regulations, Jarrett, who finished last in the opening event, started in pole position with Stewart last. However, Harvick made a strong start from fourth to take the lead on the opening lap. He led the first eight laps before being passed by Labonte. Nevertheless, Harvick regained it two laps later, and aside from Stewart leading laps 28 and 30, would generally control proceedings. Labonte made a late charge, overtaking Harvick on the back straight, only for the latter to regain the first position again between Turns 3 and 4. He edged out Labonte by .149 seconds to claim victory, with Jarrett third. Harvick's race was considered a clean one, in an era where he was noted for his aggression during races that led to him being on probation throughout the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series. His win meant he was the latest IROC rookie winner, after Jeff Burton's victory in 1998. Stewart finished sixth, leading the championship by a point from Harvick.
The California race's top five finishers consisted of NASCAR drivers. However, the following race at Chicagoland on 13th July provided a 1-2-3 for the IRL drivers. Lazier started in pole position, and led the entirety of the 67-lap race. He therefore claimed victory, becoming the first since Mark Martin in 1996 to lead an entire IROC event. Unser Jr. took second, while a third for Castroneves ensured an IRL 1-2-3, the first instance in IROC since 1996. Post-race, Lazier stated "I'm still kind of in a state of shock. I still can't believe it. Every five laps I was saying a little prayer. Starting up front, I had the feeling that it was going to be a big advantage to have clean air. I had it in the back of my mind to really hammer down hard at the beginning when I had clean air with the hope of keeping the lead. It all worked, it was beautiful."
The final race of the season occurred at 3rd August at Indianapolis. Heading into the event, Unser Jr. announced he would enter a treatment centre to resolve alcohol issues that contributed towards alleged domestic abuse. It led to his arrest on 9th July, although the charges were later dropped. His place was not taken by any other driver. Meanwhile, Lasoski suffered several injuries during a World of Outlaws crash on 27th July, being replaced by Ken Schrader. Schrader started in pole position, but was quickly passed on the first lap by Jarrett on the backstrech and later by Castroneves. From there, while Castroneves kept within touching distance, Jarrett ultimately held the first position throughout the race, claiming victory by about .380 seconds, with Schrader taking third. Stewart retired after 30 laps after an engine failure, while Harvick took fifth. With this result, Harvick became the champion after scoring 54 points compared to Lazier and Jarrett's 49. He therefore became the first IROC rookie champion since Ricky Rudd in 1992, and the sixth to do so. Post-race, Harvick stated "It's something I didn't really expect, but it's pretty awesome when you do it in front of the fans at Indianapolis."
From 1987 to 2003, all IROC races would be televised by ABC, with coverage also provided by ESPN. Two IROC XXVI broadcasts have fully resurfaced; on 19th November 2017, Dave W uploaded the ESPN coverage of the California race. He had previously uploaded the ESPN Chicagoland event broadcast on 11th February 2012. The Dayton and Indianapolis broadcasts have yet to resurface, though some highlights of the Daytona event can be found on YouTube.
- IROC I (partially found footage of stock car races; 1973-1974)
- IROC II (partially found footage of stock car races; 1974-1975)
- IROC III (lost footage of stock car races; 1975-1976)
- IROC IV (partially found footage of stock car races; 1976-1977)
- IROC VI (lost footage of stock car races; 1978-1979)
- IROC VII (partially found footage of stock car races; 1979-1980)
- IROC IX (partially lost footage of stock car races; 1985)
- IROC XII (partially lost footage of stock car races; 1988)
- IROC XVII (partially lost footage of stock car races; 1993)
- IROC XXV (partially lost footage of stock car races; 2001)
- Race Line Central detailing the rules and regulations of IROC. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- Archived IROC summarising the season. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- Autoweek reporting on the IROC XXVI schedule. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- Motorsport reporting on Stewart winning the first race. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- The Los Angeles Times reporting on Harvick winning the second race. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- UPI reporting on Lazier winning the third race. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- The Los Angeles Times reporting on Unser Jr. entering a treatment centre that prevented him from competing in the final race. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- ESPN reporting on Jarrett winning the final race, and Harvick winning the championship. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- ESPN noting Unser Jr.'s charges were later dropped. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- Motorsport reporting on the injuries Lasoki suffered at a World of Outlaws race, preventing him from competing in the final IROC event. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- GMEFI noting IROC's races from 1987 to 2003 were televised by ABC and ESPN. Retrieved 4th Nov '22
- Austin LaPlante's IROC race broadcast YouTube playlist. Retrieved 4th Nov '22