New format turns The Winston into fight for survival

Wednesday, April 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ A record purse, 20 more laps and a fight for survival are all part of the new wrinkles in The Winston, NASCAR's annual all-star event.

Under the new format announced Wednesday, the cars that finish at the back of the field at the end of the first two race segments will be kicked out of the May 18 event being described as a ``Survival of the Fastest.''

``This event already offers so many different angles and so many different ways to bring excitement to an all-star event,'' said defending champion Jeff Gordon. ``Eliminating cars is certainly going to keep things exciting.''

In years past, the race was 70 laps and split into three segments, ending with a final 10-lap shootout and no elimination.

The new format stretches the race to 90 laps with a final 20-lap shootout for a record-prize of $750,000 to the winner from the $3 million purse.

At present, 26 cars will take the green flag for the first 40 laps. Only the top 20 will be allowed to advance to the second segment.

The next segment is a 30-lap race and only the top 10 finishers advance to the final leg. The final twist is that the remaining field will be inverted based on a fan vote, either four, six, eight or 10 cars.

The inversion makes it tricky for the drivers to plot strategy. They must finish in the top 10 to advance, but have to figure out where they want to be knowing the inversion is coming.

Winning the segment could mean starting last in the final race, said Gordon, who predicted the fans would vote to invert the entire field.

The elimination effect also likely will prevent sandbagging from drivers who normally held back before the final segment knowing they would get moved up to the front of the field following the inversion.

``The elimination of cars is going to promote the drivers to run as hard as they can to get the best finishes they can,'' Gordon said. ``Even though we're pretty sure they're going to invert all 10 in that last segment, we really don't know.

``If you're trying to be in that 10th-place spot, and you've got guys who know they have to be in that 10 spot to make the next event, there's going to be a lot of action going on right there.''

The additional 10 laps on the final segment should also change driving style.

``You can run pretty hard here for 10 laps before the handling starts to go away,'' Gordon said. ``Sometimes you'll see a guy break away. When you start adding 10 more laps, 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.''

The Winston, which debuted in 1985, has always been one of the marquee events of the NASCAR season. The non-points race is a dash for cash and pride only.

Gordon, a three-time Winston winner, said teams will tinker with their cars up until the last minute and try to get trick setups through the inspection line for a chance to win the event.

There are usually a variety of altercations and incidents, including a wreck in the first turn of the first lap last year because the race began before the track had fully dried following a rain storm.

NASCAR red-flagged the event and let the drivers involved in the accident get out their backup cars. Gordon did and went on to win the race.

This is the final year on Lowe's Motor Speedway's contract to host the event. The Winston has been held at Lowe's every year except 1986 and there's been talk about moving it to different race tracks to add variety.

The drivers oppose that because so many consider the Charlotte-area home that they don't want to go on the road yet another weekend.

But NASCAR is discussing the issue with the series' sponsor, said Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's managing director of business operations.

``There's been talk of moving it from track to track, sort of like an NBA All-Star Game,'' Triplett said. ``We haven't gotten into serious discussions about it, and certainly Lowe's has done a good job.''

Retired driver Darrell Waltrip suggested that if the event does move, it should go to a track not on the current Winston Cup circuit.

``I like the idea of a neutral site,'' Waltrip said. ``That would be another equalizer and a great draw.''