Wheeler Picks Dale Jr. To Win The Winston

CONCORD, N.C. -- No matter the sport, it's rare for a rookie to even make an all-star event.

But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill rookie.

Not only has the third-generation NASCAR star earned a starting berth in Saturday night's 16th running of The Winston--NASCAR's all-star race--at Lowe's Motor Speedway, track president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler has tabbed him to beat the veterans and claim the $500,000 first prize in the $2 million event.

During the past 12 years, Wheeler has been right eight times in his annual "Pick The Winston Winner" prediction.

"Some people may think I'm going way out on a limb and they can hear the chainsaws running, but The Winston is the type of race that was made for Earnhardt Jr.," Wheeler explained. "It's a no-holds barred, stand-on-the-gas race that fits perfectly with his mentality and his driving style."

In addition, Wheeler noted that "Little E" is on a hot streak.

"Earnhardt Jr. has momentum on his side," Wheeler continued. "He won under the lights at Richmond two weeks ago, then came here to Lowe's Motor Speedway and was the fastest among 14 teams during our open test.

"Technically, Earnhardt Jr. is a rookie in Winston Cup, but he's won the last two Busch Series championships and has an experienced team that knows this race track. Earlier in the year, he was also very impressive at Atlanta and then won at Texas, both very similar tracks to our 1.5-mile tri-oval."

"I sure hope Humpy is right," said the 25-year-old Earnhardt. "I've always loved The Winston--it's a wild event. I'm just honored to be in the race this year and it would be unbelievable to win it."

While Wheeler believes Earnhardt Jr. is the favorite, he noted there are two veterans in the 20-car field to watch closely.

"You'll have to keep an eye on Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon," Wheeler said. "If Earnhardt Jr. slips, one of those two will be right there to take advantage."

As for his dark horse selections, Wheeler said defending race winner Terry Labonte could become the first repeat victor in The Winston since Davey Allison in 1991 and 92. He also included 1998 winner Mark Martin as a dark horse pick.

"Terry's a stealth racer. He'll quietly sneak up on them and he could be our second back-to-back winner," Wheeler noted. "And Mark Martin is a contender in every race he runs. You don't want to ever count him out."

Gazing deeper into his crystal ball, Wheeler predicts Mike Skinner will advance to The Winston through The Winston Open and either Ricky Rudd or Jimmy Spencer will make the field through the 16-lap No Bull Sprint.

"Skinner has the potential to do what Michael Waltrip did in 1996 and win the whole thing," Wheeler predicted. "This will be the first time that Rudd isn't eligible for The Winston and that 28 car is always fast here. And they don't call Jimmy Spencer 'Mr. Excitement' for nothing. He'll definitely put on a show."

Weekend activities kick off Friday night with qualifying for The Winston and The Winston Open No Bull 25 qualifying races for The Winston Open. Tickets start at $12.

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