DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The press release promised the most important announcement in Winston Cup Series racing in 20 years.
Word that Shawna Robinson would join the senior circuit as a part-time driver later this year is hardly groundbreaking information. Robinson isn't the first woman to pilot a Winston Cup stock car, and she won't be the last.
What makes Robinson unusual, however, is that she's the most qualified woman driver to hit the circuit.
''I don't think it's a publicity stunt, although I have to admit we deliberately picked the bigger markets,'' car owner Michael Kranefuss said of the team's plan to run Robinson at six races this season before making a full-time commitment in the next two years.
Robinson, who ran the entire ARCA-ReMax Series last year, is a veteran of the smaller Goody's Dash Series for compact stock cars and a part-time driver on the NASCAR Busch Series. She has jumped through all the necessary hoops to warrant a shot in Winston Cup.
Her races this year will be at California, Michigan, Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Homestead, Fla. By appearing in only six events, she will be eligible to compete for the rookie-of-the-year title in 2002.
A week ago, she agreed to drive three races on the Busch Series for Michael Waltrip. That, added with some ARCA events, will give her plenty of laps as she prepares to make the full-time plunge a year from now.
''The biggest thing is seat time,'' she said. ''My car has taken a lot of steps over the years to get with good people. I think (Kranefuss) has proven he can put a Winston Cup team together that can win races. That's what my relationship is going to be.''
Kranefuss, who used to be Ford's front man in racing, discovered Jeremy Mayfield. He then joined with Roger Penske and was part of both of Mayfield's victories a year ago. Penske since has bought him out, so he turned to Robinson to start a new adventure.
''It's about the 20th time in my life I have started something from ground zero,'' Kranefuss said. ''Under these conditions, it was a lot more challenging in a very positive way to start from scratch because you can really set the tone like you want from the beginning. I don't have a partner.
''The whole gang that's been around Shawna over the past year believes in her. I believe that Shawna deserves the chance to get to Winston Cup, and that's why we're doing it.''
Robinson will be the first woman to drive a Winston Cup car since Robin McCall drove two races in 1982. She failed to finish in either start.
Janet Guthrie has 33 starts in a five-year span that ended in the 1980 season.
Robinson has proven herself to be more than a novelty item. She's toiled on the ARCA circuit for more than two years, and that alone gives her the kind of credibility necessary to be respected in Winston Cup.
''We just can't show up and hope to make the race,'' Robinson said. ''This is something we have to be 100 percent prepared (for) when we get to these tracks.
Robinson is expected to drive a Ford Taurus. So far, the team doesn't have a sponsor, although the lure of having a female driver is likely to appeal quickly to Madison Avenue as it tries to reach the women who make up 45 percent of the sport's audience.
''I am absolutely sure we will find a sponsor,'' Kranefuss said. ''I have made a commitment to, if necessary, to do it on my own nickel this year simply because I believe in Shawna as a driver and the opportunity provided to any company who teams up with her.
''Nearly half the fans in the stands are women over 40 percent. Immediately, they are going to belong to Shawna.''
Nothing, of course, sells a driver better than winning. And of all the women who've made an attempt in Winston Cup Series racing, none have the credentials or the drive of Shawna Robinson. The hype will be part of the show.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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