The Winchester 400 is the first real big taste of things to come for young short trackers en route to NASCAR careers.
The race is long, grueling and decided by attrition, something right out of a Cup Series race, and those lessons were learned at the World’s Fastest Half Mile. Just ask former winners Chase Elliott and Erik Jones or even the current Cup Series points leader, William Byron.
They all entered the Winchester 400 at various points over their careers and were made better because of it.
“I haven’t been up there in quite a while,” said Elliott, the 2010 race winner. “My first trip up there, I was like 13 or 14. That was a lot for me to go to a high-banked, half-mile similar to Bristol in a lot of ways but obviously aged, asphalt and not concrete.
“It’s a tough track and can be intimidating and you’re young and haven’t seen a lot of tracks of that nature. It was a lot for me to take on at that time.”
It was a lot, he said a lot and with a certain conviction.
“I’m glad I did it and I think I learned a lot racing up there at Winchester and always admired the event,” he added. “We had some good runs up there and I would like to go back someday. Looking forward to keeping up with it next week and seeing who gets the rifle.”
Erik Jones won three Winchester 400s in a row from 2013 to 2015. Like Elliott, he maintains that place forged him as a NASCAR driver.
“400 laps is tough, it’s a race of attrition for one,” Jones said. “We would have to beef up our cars when we took them up there because they’re so nimble and lightweight, just to make it to the end there after 400 laps.
“Back then, we were doing live pit stops too so the attrition was very high. It was hard on a driver because I had run some Truck Series races at the time, but they were nothing like that race. That was a long day and we were falling out of the seat.
“It really means a lot when you win that race.”
William Byron made one start in the 400, driving for FURY Race Cars, starting on the outside pole and finishing ninth in 2016.
“It’s really a Bristol with a lot more character, a lot more bumps and nicks in the wall,” Byron said. “You run up against the fence when the track rubbers in. The wall isn’t very even so it can catch you by surprise, you can get into it and it can ruin your race.
“It’s one of those races, with mechanical things being an issue with those cars, you are testing the chassis, how much it flexes and how much it can withstand. It’s a lot of man versus machine. It’s something we’ve lost a little bit in the Cup Series and I appreciate with those cars.”
The 52nd Winchester 400 is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. and is the penultimate race of the inaugural ASA STARS national Super Late Model series. There are 26 cars on the entry list containing Ty Majeski, Noah Gragson, Stephen Nasse, Cole Butcher, Jake Garcia and Jake Finch.
Weather permitting, practice and qualifying is set for Saturday. The CRA JEGS Pro Late Model race is scheduled for Friday night. The event airs live on Racing America.