Second Means Nothing At All

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Sure, The Winston is NASCAR'S all-star race. But who is the biggest star? Is there one driver who consistently shines during what is considered the wildest night of the year?

Hardly. No driver stands out as the best of the best in The Winston. Instead, the only consistency is inconsistency.

“It's a really, really hard race to win,” said Rusty Wallace, one of those drivers with an up-and-down record. “We’re used to running 500 or 400-milers. In order to get your car super fast for 30 laps and then faster yet for 10 laps, it’s something than none of us have a whole lot of experience with.”

The late Dale Earnhardt is the only three-time winner of the event, but even he had some rough finishes: 10th in 1985 and 1991, 14th in 1992 and 1995, 18th in 1994 and 19th in 1998.

The late Davey Allison, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte are the other multiple winners. But Allison had only two other top-five finishes in his seven races, and Labonte has finished 10th or worse eight times.

Gordon’s record – he has a third and a fourth to go with his two victories – is the “best” of the all-star drivers, but his average finish of 6.7 isn't exactly overwhelming, especially when you consider The Winston has an average 18.75-car field.

Ken Schrader has the best average finish, 5.14, but he hasn’t raced in the event since 1995 – when he was 20th.

With some of the other top drivers, it’s an all-or-nothing experience:

Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champion, has finished second twice but has ended up ninth or worse in four other races. Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup champion, was second last year to Earnhardt Jr. But in nine races, he has one 18th-place finish and three 19th-place finishes.

Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup champion and winner of The Winston in 1989, also finished second in 1996 and fourth in 1987 and 1995. But Wallace has been outside the Top 5 nine other times, including finishes of 13th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th. Bill Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup champion and 1986 winner of The Winston, has a race record four poles but hasn’t finished in the top five since 1992.

Some other examples:

Mark Martin did get a victory – only after Gordon ran out of gas in 1998 – but has finished 13th or worse six times. It’s either feast or famine with Michael Waltrip, with little feast. He had a victory in 1996, but nothing else in the Top 5 and had finished 11th or worse five times.

Jeff Burton has finished fourth, fifth and sixth – and 12th, 20th and 20th. Ward Burton’s record is even worse than Jeff’s. Ward hasn’t finished higher than ninth in any of his five races.

John Andretti’s record in The Winston is even worse than Ward’s. In three starts, Andretti has ended up 10th, 18th and 20th.

Ricky Rudd, who isn’t yet eligible this season, has one Top 3 in 15 races. Tony Stewart was a strong second his first year, but followed up with a crash and a 15th-place finish last year.

Why the inconsistency? Simple. Second place “means nothing at all,” Jeremy Mayfield said.

“It really comes down to this: It’s a giant television studio,” said Mayfield, who has finished fifth, 18th and 16th in three races. “You either go to victory lane or you figure some lady wearing black with a British accent is going to come up and tell you, ‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye.’ If you're not the winner in The Winston, you leave there disappointed, no matter what.

“It’s not exactly a ‘win or don’t bring the car back’ type of deal, but it’s probably closer to that than anything else we run. It must be. Look at all The Winstons that have been run and how many guys didn’t bring the car back.”

The drivers have been lucky through the years in that no one has been hurt too badly in this race. Lowe’s Motor Speedway is a high-speed track, but it’s usually not treated that way.

“You forget you’re on a mile-and-a-half race track,” Jarrett said. You think you’re at Hickory or somewhere on a Saturday night and you’re in a 10-lap shootout with the best. We’ve all been in those because we’ve all been winners, so we know what that’s like and we get pumped up. I mean, you look in these stands and see these people – the ones that still can stand are standing – and that's exciting; you get pumped up. You forget all the courtesy you might have known before and who your buddies are and just go after it.”

An added loophole this year is the 20-minute “Happy Hour” schedule for Friday night after qualifying.

“Now with this new schedule – only 20 minutes of practice – it’s really going to confuse everybody again,” Jarrett said. “It’s something I really don’t agree with. I don't know why they did that, when there’s this much money on the line and all the sponsors showing up.”

But by the time the green flag drops sometime after 9 p.m. Saturday, Wallace and the rest of the drivers won’t care. Only one thing will be on their minds.

“All I want is that trophy and to say that I’ve won the race of winners,” Jarrett said. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to win a lot of them (Winston Cup races), but I don’t have that trophy (for winning The Winston).”

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