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Winston Cup Drivers At Ease

5 February 1999

Daytona Beach, FL-February 5th, 1999

The relaxed atmosphere of the Bill France room was the occasion to interview several of the current and future stars of NASCAR. Among the assembled drivers were Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Kenny Schrader, Ernie Irvan, Ward Burton, Kenny Irwin, Ricky Craven and Darrell Waltrip. The drivers were making themselves available to reporters to basically discuss anything. It is one of the few chances to observe a non-racing side of these asphalt warriors. The most-often asked question posed to driver's during the forty-five minute Q & A session was the concern of the ever-lengthening Winston Cup (33 races) season. Most of the drivers responded with the aplomb of politicians. A few drivers answered off the record that their concern of a longer season was not with themselves but with their families. Each driver reiterated that they were lucky to be paid, some quite handsomely, for a profession that they love so much.

Jeff Gordon is a true media star. The drivers were sitting or standing in various parts of the room with the media dispersed evenly among them. Suddenly Gordon enters the room and you would have thought that Gordon was the only driver in the room. The three-time Winston Cup champion was literally "surrounded" with every type of recording device known to man shoved under his mouth. For this writer it was the perfect opportunity to spend time with the other drivers.

Ward Burton of South Boston, VA has not changed a bit in the 10 years that I have known him. With Burton you get a dose of Virginia gentleman politeness with a candid review of his current driving status. Burton has always been a fun person to interview. He tells it like it is. "The goal for 1999" Burton answered, "is to have a more consistent year. We proved to ourselves at Pocono that we can run with the top teams. This year we have to do it week in and week out."

Rusty Wallace of the Miller Lite/Penske South Racing team is perhaps the most relaxed that I can remember in years. Rusty has always understood how the media works. Utilizing the talents of his handler Tom Roberts, Wallace appears to have gone through a transformation. In past years if things went wrong Wallace would seem to point the finger at everyone but himself. These days he seems to place all of the blame on himself. None the less he appears to be enjoying his racing more than ever.

Texaco-Havoline driver Kenny Irwin, the 1998 Rookie of the Year with Robert Yates Racing is another of the driver's who exemplify politeness. He treats every question with genuine interest, even though he has probably heard it a 1000 times, and tries to make certain the interviewer understands his drive to be the best without a lot of bravado. Irwin learned some hard knocks from last year both on and off the track. On the track he is looking forward to getting the rookie stripe off of his car plus he discovered that to be the best in Winston Cup requires a lot of dedication plus some good luck along the way. Off the track he found the hard way just how cruel the media and fans can be. An untrue, but consistent rumor last year had Irwin going off on all-night drinking binges. Fortunately, car-owner Robert Yates knew the truth and helped pull Irwin through the tough times. Despite all of the negative things said about him, Irwin never lost his composure publicly which showed some real maturity in such a young person.

Another driver who could use a spate of good luck in 1999 is Derrike Cope. Perhaps the best dresser of all the Winston Cup drivers, Cope is another person who is patient with even the most obnoxious of questions. Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 champion, had a dismal 1998 racing season. Scoring one pole (Charlotte) and no top ten finishes Cope is looking to turn things around in 1999 with Bahari Racing. An injury plagued season will hopefully be left behind for a winning in 1999.

Talking to the drivers away from the track allows a little more insight into the behind the scenes demands of the grueling Winston Cup schedule. Let's just hope it will be a lucky one for all.

David Treffer -- The Auto Channel