Editorial

Inside The Winston

by Pete McCole
April 11, 2002

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The 2002 edition of The Winston all-star race will be "Survival Of The Fastest", as a record number of drivers will be competing for a share of a $3 million dollar purse in the richest race in motorsports on May 18th at Lowe's Motor Speedway. For the first time in the 17-year history of The Winston, drivers will be eliminated from the grid following both the first and second segments, leaving just the 10 fastest drivers to battle it out for the $750,000 check at the finish of the final 20-lap dash to the finish.


Humpy Wheeler, Jeff Gordon, Ned Leary and Rich Habegger explained the new format.
Photo: Pete McCole

"For 17 years we've strived to make The Winston both competitive and exciting. We have reached that ultimate objective this year with 'Survival Of The Fastest,'" said Ned Leary, president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco's Sports Marketing Enterprises. "Survival Of The Fastest will be a challenge not only to the 26 drivers eligible, but to the teams as well, adaptation and performance will be put at a premium under the new format as teams must race to survive."

The new format for The Winston announced Wednesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway will feature three segments totaling 90 laps, or 135 miles. Following the first 40-lap segment, only the top 20 finishers will advance to the next 30-lap segment. Only the top 10 drivers will be left to compete in the third and final 20-lap segment. For the final segment, the running order of the field will be inverted by either four, six, eight or 10 positions as determined by fan voting. 

"Tweaking The Winston is one of the favorite pastimes that we do," said Lowe's Motor Speedway president and general manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler. "I think we got something very interesting here, I think it's going to produce some entertaining results."

Adding to that excitement is the record $3 million dollar purse. The pole-sitter, along with the winners of the first and second segments each will take home $50,000. The winner of the third and final segment scores a paycheck of $750,000, making the 2002 running of The Winston the richest race in motorsports.

By comparison, the total purse of the inaugural running of The Winston was only $500,000.


The dynamic duo of Wheeler and Gordon.
Photo: Pete McCole

The field will be comprised of race winners from the 2001 season as well as the current season, plus past Winston Cup champions and previous winners of the Winston. The winner of the 30-lap Winston Open and 16-lap No Bull Sprint, run prior to The Winston, will also transfer into the race. This year's race will feature record 26 drivers, or more if another non-eligible driver reaches victory lane in the coming weeks leading up to the race.

Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner of the event and the defending Winston Cup champion, was on hand for the announcement.

"This is exciting - not just the numbers, but the format. This is an event that all the drivers and teams really get excited about." Gordon said. "This is going to be a great format. Eliminating the cars and other drivers through each segment is certainly going to keep things exciting." 

"The last 20 laps now (instead of 10) are going to do much more than you can imagine. You can run pretty hard here for 10 laps before the handling starts to go away. Sometimes you'll see a guy break away and once that leader gets out there, nobody can catch him. But when you start adding 10 more laps to that event, he's going to have to be careful how hard he pushes that car because the handling will go away and somebody can run him down."


Jeff Gordon shared his thoughts on the new format of The Winston.
Photo: Pete McCole

Gordon won last year's Winston in a back-up car after crashing is primary car in the first turn of the first lap. A light rain had moved in just prior to the start of the race, resulting in a slick racetrack that took out four cars on the first lap. In the previous format, caution laps did not count, so those teams involved in the crash were allowed to pull out their back-up cars and start from the rear of the field.

That won't be the case this year, as all laps run under caution will count, and each team must make a mandatory green-flag, four-tire pit stop during the first segment.

Another change to this year's race will be the field inversion, which has been a part of The Winston since 1992. A vote by fans, in a method yet to be determined, will decide whether the field is inverted by four, six, eight or 10 positions, making it hard for driver's to predict where they will end up for the final segment.

"They might as well just invert 10." Gordon said, "I don't always know the fans that well, but I think I know them well enough to know that they want to see as many inverted as possible. Even though we're pretty sure that they're going to want to invert all 10 (cars) in that last segment, we really don't know. The fans are going to be the ones to decide that." 

There is also speculation as to the future of The Winston at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The track is in the final year of their contract to host the event, which may now move elsewhere for the 2003 season.

"We have no agreement past this year," said Rich Habegger, Winston Cup director for Sports Marketing Enterprises. "We're talking with NASCAR and we'll decide the future of The Winston site for next year in the next few months."


Humpy Wheeler is a strong advocate to keep The Winston in Charlotte.
Photo: Pete McCole

Since it's inception in 1985, all but one running of The Winston has been at Lowe's (which was known as Charlotte) Motor Speedway. Wheeler, as well as Gordon, hopes it stays that way.

"The future of The Winston is it should stay here (in Charlotte)," Wheeler said, "I just don't think it works going anywhere else. This is the place where the guys have a whole weekend at home, if you move it anywhere else, they're going to have to be out of town for that race. It's not a weekend you have to spend on the road."

"This is Grand Central Station for NASCAR racing, where else could (The Winston) be and have the impact that it does? Plus we're going to promote the heck out of it."

"There's not a better place to have it than here in Charlotte." Gordon said, "For some reason, this racetrack really offers a great venue for this type of event and the fans seem to come out," Gordon said. "Right before that green flag comes out, you can see the flashbulbs going off in the grandstands - seeing the enthusiasm and the excitement of the fans and the drivers - and it's just an awesome event to be a part of."

"I don't think there's any reason to go anywhere else. I hope (the race) doesn't move, I like it here in Charlotte. I think it makes sense - for a lot of reasons."

 

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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