Wheeler Picks Gordon to Win NEXTEL All-Star Race
Wheeler named Gordon as his selection to win Saturday night's 21st running of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge during his annual pick-the-winner press conference Monday in downtown Charlotte.
Known for his promotional flair and Karnac-type ability, Wheeler has correctly picked the winner of NASCAR's all-star race nine times in the past 16 races.
"Jeff Gordon has this place figured out," Wheeler said about Gordon's understanding of the track's levigated racing surface. "He knew more about what we did to the track than anybody and he even picked out the little secret things we did.
"Jeff has shown an ability to adapt to new tracks as fast or faster than any driver I have ever seen," Wheeler continued. "In fact, he might have found a groove nobody knows about. Is he going to show that groove during qualifying? I don't think so. I don't think we'll see it until that final 20-lap segment."
This is the fifth time in 11 years Wheeler has selected Gordon to win NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series racing's all-star event and only one of the four previous picks panned out. That came in 1995 when Gordon avoided a crash involving Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip at the start of the final segment and went on to record his first of three victories.
After thoroughly reviewing the data, Wheeler said his selection came down to a choice between Gordon and Greg Biffle.
"Greg Biffle is the hottest driver on the circuit and, if you look at what he's done recently, he would normally be my choice," Wheeler explained. "I believe very strongly in the 'sweet spot in time' that athletes go through and I think Biffle's having his right now.
"In addition, crew chief Doug Richert has made a fabulous comeback," Wheeler continued. "Richert's ability to make a race car handle has always been underestimated. When he was Dale Earnhardt's crew chief, Earnhardt ran so deep into the corners here you thought he was going to Concord.
"But they're bringing a brand new car for this race, and that tipped the scales in Gordon's favor."
Ryan Newman, the 2002 winner of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, was another driver Wheeler gave heavy consideration during the extensive selection process.
"Newman always runs well on the mile-and-a-half race tracks, but he hasn't finished that well this season," said Wheeler. "Plus, Newman only tested his Busch Series car here and I think that will hurt him in the all-star race."
This year, instead of a dark horse selection, Wheeler's going with a pair of sentimental favorites-Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
"This will be the final time these two guys compete in the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge and that'll be extra incentive for them to get up on the wheel," Wheeler said. "Rusty's bump-and-run of Darrell Waltrip in the 1989 race was a defining moment that literally changed his career while Martin had fans on their feet when he swept around Gordon's sputtering car on the final lap to win the 1998 race.
"It would be a very popular victory if either of these guys can claim the $1 million first prize."
In the inaugural NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Pit Crew Challenge Thursday night, May 19, at the Charlotte Coliseum, Wheeler predicts the event's unique format will result in true athleticism rising to the top.
"If the competition was a normal pit stop, it would be hard to bet against the 48, 24 or 97 teams," Wheeler said. "However, I had spies watching some of the practice and I think this format, which includes pushing the car, gives Michael Waltrip's No. 15 team the edge."
On-track activities for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge kick off Friday night with qualifying for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge and the NEXTEL Open. In addition to qualifying, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will compete in the Quaker Steak & Lube 200 presented by Click It or Ticket. Tickets start at $20.
Good seats, in various price ranges, are still available for Saturday's NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge. Tickets start at $33 and may be obtained by calling 1-800-455-FANS or online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.