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Irwin: There's no place like home

Struggling Winston Cup driver hopes coming home for the Brickyard 400 can turn his season, and his career, around.

Back porches were made for nights like the one that passed Monday at the Irwin family's Indianapolis home.

Mothers were made for doling out advice like what Mama Irwin passed on to Kenny not so long ago.

And race car drivers were made to pass each other, something Kenny Irwin hasn't done nearly enough of this season.

No wonder the No. 28 Ford driver is so happy to be home in Indiana this week, able just to sit and savor life's little pleasures before getting back to the business of NASCAR Winston Cup. And able to block out the whirl of rumors suggesting car owner Robert Yates might soon take the keys from someone once thought to perhaps be one of NASCAR's next great drivers.

"I went over to my parents and had dinner and my Mom made exactly what I like to eat," Irwin said, the taste of those mashed potatoes and gravy still lingering a day later. "We just kind of hung out on the back porch, and, to me, that's very relaxing. I get to see everybody that I know, and it's just nice."

Little else has been so sunny this season for the bachelor whose 30th birthday just happens to fall today, when first-round pole qualifying is scheduled for Saturday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The black cloud lingering over No. 28 simply has not lifted for Irwin, who has yet to win for the first time on stock car racing's loftiest circuit.

The former USAC star was Winston Cup's rookie of the year in 1998 and became the first driver to win more than $1-million his first Cup season, but with an average finish of 22nd in '99, and nothing better than a third-place showing at the Daytona 500, he is parked firmly behind 19 others in the point standings.

That is why talk of Irwin losing his ride gained steam in early July, during the Pepsi 400.

Yates has done little to squash the speculation.

"I want so much to make this deal work," he said on the eve of the Pepsi race. "(Irwin) can do it. He knows in his heart he can.

"But we won't be miserable forever."

Irwin dodged one bullet when two-time Winston Cup Terry Labonte, said to be in line to take over the 28, signed a three-year contract to stay with Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevy.

Still, even Irwin is not certain what will happen. His contract is through next season, but it remains to be seen what Yates might do before then.

"I don't really know," Irwin said. "Me and Robert had a long talk (during test session at Indy last month) and nothing ever was discussed about what we were going to change _ if I was gonna change, or if he wanted to make a change.

"He told me that this is what he wanted to do and that he was gonna keep progressing along. Other than that, I have no idea.

"This is where I want to be," said Irwin, who took over a car previously driven by Ernie Irvan and the late Davey Allison. "To say I haven't had some problems, I have. I feel like I can get through it. I'm not convinced that it's gonna be in the 28 car because there's so much that's around it, but if something would change I feel like I can still get it done in Winston Cup.

"It kind of makes me fight harder. I feel like I drive as hard as I can every weekend, but it makes you want it even more after all this speculation."

The tough times have been trying, especially with Irwin's teammate, points leader Dale Jarrett, enjoying so much success this season.

"I feel like we keep progressing," Irwin said. "I know some weeks it probably doesn't look like that, but I guess you don't see it because we're not a top-5 team like Dale Jarrett is every week. Our steps are smaller than what his are."

Jarrett feels Irwin's pain.

"Everyone out there knows Kenny has a lot of talent and he can certainly do this," he said. "Finding that total combination, though _ it doesn't matter if you're Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon or Rusty Wallace or Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin _ if you don't have the total package, and that means the supporting cast, then it's gonna be difficult to make everything happen week in and week out.

"I feel for Kenny and somewhat know what he's going through, because I've been in that situation. But I hope he won't lose sight of the fact that he is a good race driver. He's very talented. He has a good head on his shoulders and things are gonna work out."

If not, there always are other options.

Like finding another ride, maybe even open-wheel work. Like just chilling at an Indiana home. Like talking to someone who knows what to say when, and hearing what she says.

"A long time ago me and my Mom talked about stuff like this, and that I have the opportunity to do other things," Irwin said. "When I feel like it's absolutely no fun and . . . the people just aren't nice, or whatever, then I will make a change and go do something that is reasonably more entertaining to myself, and just stop there. I'm kind of getting beat up every weekend."

But not at home. Not on the back porch.

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