CONCORD, N.C -- It's time for NASCAR Winston Cup racing to hold its annual all-star event. Rusty Wallace thinks it may be a good time to think about retiring the 13-year-old attraction.
At least 20 of the sport's top drivers will gather Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway for The Winston, a 70-lap event that has a purse of more than $1.3 million and could pay the winner more than $300,000.
Wallace won the event in 1989, but he didn't hesitate when asked whether the fast-growing sport of Winston Cup racing still needs to hold exhibitions that offer excitement and money but don't affect the driver standings.
"We've become so professional, the sport's come so far, people want to see fast, exciting races," he said. "As far as having weird things that we do to create excitement, this sport's come too far for that. We don't have to do that anymore. Every time we line these things up and fire them off on a Sunday or a Saturday evening, it's excitement enough."
Wallace appears to be in a small minority on the issue.
Friday night qualifying routinely draws at least 60,000, and a crowd of 150,000 is expected for Saturday night's race, which probably will take less than 45 minutes.
Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who has no plans to end the event, doesn't gauge fan interest solely by the size of the crowds.
"It doesn't help the concessions," he said, "because the people won't leave their seats."
And quite often, they don't even bother to sit in them, either. That's because The Winston, in stark contrast to the weekly points races, has developed a reputation as an event in which anything goes. Drivers routinely try daring moves in The Winston that they wouldn't even consider on Sundays when coveted spots in the season points standings are on the line.
"You'll see something that you don't see at any other track," Wheeler said. "Those guys are on the ragged edge, and it has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with pride."
Bobby Hamilton put it another way.
"What's that deal they have in Spain -- the running of the bulls?" he said. "Well, the last 10 laps of The Winston makes that look like a little girls' tea party. It's a 20-car game of chicken."
The event, run in two 30-lap segments followed by a 10-lap sprint, has been altered this year in an attempt to reduce the practice of some drivers taking it easy during the first 30 laps.
This time, a roulette wheel will be spun after the first 30-lap segment, and depending on what number the wheel lands, anywhere between three and 12 cars will be inverted in the lineup for the start of the second segment.
In addition, the mandatory break between the second and third legs has been eliminated. In its place, NASCAR officials will throw a caution flag, making the drivers and their crews gamble on whether to pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments or stay out on Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked oval and maintain their position.
Eligibility for The Winston is mainly limited to race winners in stock car's premier series. That means Jeremy Mayfield, the 1998 Winston Cup points leader, is not qualified for the event since he has yet to win a race during his career.
The only way Mayfield can gain admission into the field is to win the Winston Open, a 50-lap qualifying race for non-winners held before the main event. If Mayfield doesn't win the Open, it would be the first time that a current points leader didn't make The Winston.
That would mean Mayfield would miss -- at least in the eyes of Hamilton -- one of the best shows in stock car racing.
"It's one of the few times when you can hear the crowd over the engines," Hamilton said.
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