Winston: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart The Winston - USAC style. ATLANTA (May 14, 2002) - Over its 17-year existence, the rules and format to The Winston have changed as often as teams unveil special paint schemes for the all-star, non-points event. This year's...

Tony Stewart
The Winston - USAC style.

ATLANTA (May 14, 2002) - Over its 17-year existence, the rules and format to The Winston have changed as often as teams unveil special paint schemes for the all-star, non-points event. This year's rendering of The Winston is no different, but it is one that suits Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart just fine.

Stewart's racing roots can be traced back to open-wheeled Sprint cars and Midgets, where making it into the feature race meant winning or finishing near the top in a series of preliminary heat races. Don't finish in the top-three or top-five, don't advance to the feature race. But with four USAC (United States Auto Club) championships to his credit, Stewart has a proven track record of excelling in such a cutthroat environment.

That very same environment has been created for this year's running of The Winston.

Drivers eligible for The Winston have won either races or championships in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in the last five years. Former winners of The Winston, as well as the winner of The Winston Open, a qualifying race for those who have yet to win a Winston Cup race, and the winner of a last chance "dog biscuit race" known as the No Bull Sprint, are also eligible for The Winston.

The Winston consists of three segments, as it has for many years. But for 2002, a new wrinkle has been added.

The total race length will be 90 laps, but not all of the participants will be able to go the entire race distance. The first segment will be 40 laps, but only the top-20 will advance to into the second 30-lap segment. Once the second leg is complete, only the top-10 will move on to the third and final 20-lap segment. And one more thing, according to a fan vote, four, six, eight or the entire 10-car field will be inverted for the final segment.

While the format may seem a bit confusing, the end result is clear. With drivers vying for the lion's share of the estimated $3 million purse, the last segment is where every driver wants to be. If you're not there, neither is the big check.

For Stewart, that's the way racing ought to be. It's the way he raced for years on the USAC circuit, and it's what got him to Winston Cup. Now that the two entities have merged together for one night of racing, look for Stewart to rise to the occasion.

Do you like the new format for The Winston?

"It's pretty unique. It's probably going to be a little more exciting for the fans knowing that it's not only the race to see who wins the segment, but it's the race to see who's going to be in the next segment. There's a race within a race this year."

Does the new format of The Winston remind you of your USAC days?

"Yeah, but at least in USAC you always had a semi. There aren't any semis with The Winston. If you make a mistake, blow a corner and two guys get by you, and you're one spot away from being bumped, you're not going to get a second chance to get into the next race. You've missed it. That's it. You're done."

How much is The Winston used as a test to prepare for the Coca-Cola 600?

"I've always looked at it as however your car is driving in The Winston is relatively true to how your car is going to drive in the 600. I've always felt like it's a really good test because it's really the only time we have to run at night in race conditions."

Do you take the same mentality into The Winston that you do for the Budweiser Shootout?

"It's no holds barred. I want to see how much money I can make in those two races. I take the same attitude that I had when I was racing USAC. Sure, I'll still have enough money to buy gas and get home this time, but I'll treat The Winston like I have to win it or else there won't be any money to get home. That was the reality for me back in my early USAC days. I had to win. Winning meant surviving."

Do drivers attempt moves in The Winston that they'd never think about using in regular point races?

"Nah, you just race hard and you don't worry about what happens."

Is The Winston less pressure-filled and more fun because there are no points to be won or lost?

"It's as fun as Winston Cup racing can be, and I think that shows. The fans obviously seem to like it."

You've got the chance to earn $750,000 for winning the last segment. That's a quarter of a million dollars more than it was last year. Do those numbers enter your mind before the start of the race?

"I'll think about it if we're lucky enough to get into victory lane. I'll worry about what it pays when I'm standing on The Home Depot Pontiac holding the trophy."

-jgr/hdr-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart