With the 18th running of The Winston all-star race just days away, Lowe's Motor Speedway kicked off the week leading up to Saturday night's big race with an annual tradition - speedway president and general manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler revealing his prediction for this year's winner of the event, picking 2001 Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, a three-time winner of The Winston, is in the midst of a 19-race winless streak. Although Saturday's race is a non-points event, Wheeler says this race is the perfect setting for Gordon to break out of his slump.
Gordon is looking to win The Winston for the 4th time.
"Can you imagine what would happen if you put 10 lions who hadn't eaten in a week in a narrow cage 30 miles long with one big steak at the end of it?" said Wheeler. "That's precisely what the last segment of The Winston is and the hungriest guy with the fastest car is going to win and, right now, no one is hungrier than Jeff Gordon. And Jeff always seems to rise to the occasion at this speedway."
Saturday's running of The Winston, dubbed "Survival Of The Fastest" features a new format over previous editions of the event. Following the first 40-lap segment, only the top 20 finishers will advance to the next 30-lap segment, and only the top 10 finishers from that segment will advance to the final 10-lap shootout.
The winner of The Winston pockets a cool $750,000, part of a record $3 million dollar purse.
Gordon has been Wheeler's pick twice before - in 1995, where he proved Wheeler's prediction correct, and again in 1999 when he lost out to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry
Wheeler has correctly predicted the winner eight out of thirteen times since starting the tradition in 1989. His pick to win last year's event, Dale Jarrett, finished second behind Gordon, who drove to his third victory in The Winston in a back-up car after losing his primary car in an opening lap crash.
Wheeler has correctly picked the winner of The Winston
8 of the last 13 years.
"The fact that Humpy's pick has won The Winston eight out of the last 13 years bodes well for us. The Winston is an awesome event to be a part of and it would be a great place for us to get back to victory," said Gordon. "All 10 cars that are in that final segment have a shot winning. I'll go out there and run as hard as I can to finish the best I can."
For his "dark horse" selection, Wheeler picked Gordon's teammate and rookie-of-the-year contender Jimmie Johnson. Johnson, who won recently at California Speedway, will be making his first start in The Winston.
"I almost picked Jimmie Johnson, who had the fastest car with The Winston set-up during testing here last week." Wheeler said, "But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only rookie to have ever won this race and if another one does, it could be Jimmie who is my dark horse selection."
Wheeler is very coy when it comes to making his predictions. During last week's testing sessions held here, Wheeler could be seen making is way through the garage area, looking to see who had their cards on the table.
"It's not just picking names out of a hat. Luck has nothing to do with The Winston." Wheeler said. "The testing sessions that we had here last week were very interesting because the puzzling part of it is the first thing you have to do when somebody's running well, is figure out if they have the Winston setup on the car, or if they have the 600 setup, plus the fact that we have a new format this year."
Although Gordon's #24 Dupont team didn't take part in last week's test, Johnson's team did. Wheeler is convinced that information gathered by Johnson's #48 Lowe's team will certainly be shared with Gordon, who is also co-owner of Johnson's team.
"You can bet Jimmie told Jeff everything he did to his car during testing here." Wheeler said, "You couple one real fast race car with a guy who has won this race three times and is starved for a victory; and you've got the 'Jeff Gordon combination.'"
Wheeler picked 24-year-old rookie Ryan Newman as the winner of the Winston Open, the event run previous to The Winston where the winner advances to the main event. He also picked Jimmy Spencer to win the No Bull Sprint, a 16-lap race run at the conclusion of the Winston Open. The winner of the No Bull Sprint also advances to The Winston.
This year's field features a record 27 competitors, including this season's two first-time winners, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
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