|Humpy Wheeler used to pick All-Star Race winners better than anyone|
Yes, Humpy should be in the NASCAR Hall-of-Fame, and because he was so likable and respected by every driver, team owner and member of the press, that honor should come soon. But from my Vegas world of odds and giving drivers a certain rating before each race, he’s a Vegas-type of hall-of-famer because of the consistent nature with which he picked winners in the All-Star race.
He had the type of success rate where if he was actually betting his picks at a sports book, he might have had his limits reduced. From 1989 to 2003, Wheeler correctly picked 10 of 14 All-Star race winners. He only gave one pick, and hinted at others, and they cashed often. These picks weren’t favorites, either. He picked rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win in 2000 who was 20-to-1 to win at my sports book. Obviously, I hadn't got Wheeler's pick for that one (NASCAR info tougher to get back then) or Junior would have been 5-to-1.
In 2003, one week before a second-year driver named Jimmie Johnson would start a run of winning five of six straight Charlotte points-paying races, Wheeler picked him to win the All-Star race. Johnson was 12-to-1 that day. Wheeler had the magic touch and also the magic view from his office where he would time every driver‘s speed entering and exiting turn 4. The driver he ultimately decided on was always based on pure numbers, and he also kept his ears open in the garages. There was nothing lucky about his picks.
As I look at speeds from Friday’s lone Sprint All-Star Race practice, and think ’Who would Humpy Pick’, the name at the top of the list is Brad Keselowski. In addition to having the fastest 5-and 10 consecutive lap averages during the 85-minute practice session, Keselowski also won on the 1.5-mile sister track of Charlotte at Las Vegas in March, as well as the fall Charlotte race last season. Keselowski's personality also fits the mold of drivers Wheeler traditionally selected.
The driver Humpy seemed to select the most over his tenure was Jeff Gordon. He was correct in 1995 with Gordon, but lost at least four other times with him. There almost seemed to be a sentimental side to Wheeler when he chose Gordon in 2005-06 -- during Johnson’s incredible Charlotte run -- which is something he managed to stay away from in most of his selections. He loved Dale Earnhardt and won twice with him, but those were based on times. Gordon’s were too, but nostalgia also appears to have played a part.
However, it rolls back to Gordon this time around in the 30th running of the event. It’s hard not to root for the driver who has re-taken control of the Hendrick Motorsports flag. He hasn’t won a championship since 2001, while Johnson has won six. But he leads the series in points, grabbed his first win of the season at Kansas last week, and also finished second at another sister track of Charlotte at Texas. Incidentally, Gordon is using that same runner-up chassis Saturday night -- without the Texas A&M logo.
So while Keselowski looks fast and Joe Gibbs Racing has re-energized Denny Hamlin's No. 11, the Wheeler angle has me looking straight at Gordon partly with hopes of seeing a great story materialize. He’s a three time winner of the All-Star Race, the last time occurring in 2001. In fact, all three of his All-Star wins (1995, 1997, 2001) came in years he ended up winning season championships.
Who would Humpy pick? Jeff Gordon, who was seventh fastest in practice (191.198). But there might be a hint of someone else on his mind.
It's likely Wheeler would be quite enamored with rookie Kyle Larson, who was blistering fast in Friday's early Sprint Showdown practice. Larson laid down a lap at 194.105 mph, while the second fastest -- Aric Almirola -- went 192.438 mph. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fastest during All-Star Race practice -- run later under different conditions, and came in with a slower speed (193.562) than Larson. Larson will have to finish among the top-two in the Sprint Showdown Friday night to qualify for Saturday's All-Star Race.
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