Harry Ranier walked away from Winston Cup racing after the 1988 season, leaving a lot of people wondering why.

Ranier's teams won 39 poles and 24 races, including three Daytona 500s, in 11 years. His drivers included Lennie Pond, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Davey Allison.

After selling his team to engine-builder Robert Yates, Ranier disappeared from the racing scene. He said he just needed to spend more time looking after his non-racing businesses.

He returned at the start of the 1996 season as part of Ranier-Walsh Racing, campaigning a Ford Thunderbird for rookie Tony Stewart in the Busch Grand National series.

Now Ranier says the team, which still is negotiating for a sponsor and a team manager, is ready to move up to the Winston Cup series, although Stewart's results as a BGN rookie have been no better than average.

``Winston Cup was always our goal,'' Ranier said. ``We are Winston Cup racers and we planned on getting there as quickly as possible.

``With Tony, I think that he should be running the cars that he is going to be in permanently. We would rather have a poor Winston Cup year than a banner Busch year to get him started.''

Stewart, the only driver to win the top three USAC short track championships _ midgets, sprint cars and championship dirt cars _ in a season, is currently recuperating from a broken shoulder blade and fractured pelvic bone from a crash during an Indy Racing League event two weeks ago at Las Vegas. The 25-year-old racer is expected to make a full recovery in time to do some offseason testing in the team's new Thunderbirds.

``It's been sort of a mixed bag with Tony because we agreed to let him run the IRL series this year, and he wanted to do that because that has been a lifelong dream for him,'' Ranier said. ``We have been totally inconsistent (in the Busch series), but we just wanted him really to use this year to get him used to driving a heavier car. We didn't expect anything. We just wanted to let him get used to the transition and to know kind of what he's got to look forward to in Winston Cup.''

Ranier grins when Stewart is compared with Jeff Gordon, who already is a Winston Cup champion and superstar at age 25.

``I definitely agree he has that potential,'' Ranier said. ``Tony's statement about being the next Jeff Gordon is always that, `No, I want to be the first Tony Stewart.' Tony definitely has the ability to become a superstar. It will take him some time, but that's what we're here for, to give him whatever time is necessary for him to reach that plateau.''

Ranier, who will also run 21-year-old Toby Porter in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series next season, said nobody involved with the team is expecting anything spectacular at the start.

``We are definitely going into '97 with hat in hand,'' Ranier said. ``We would be delighted if Tony could just make the races and just get some good seat time with the people he is going to be racing with. And we would be totally delighted if he gets a good run somewhere and happens to have a good finish.

``I think that probably the last half of the second season that we run Tony in Winston Cup, I'd say that we can expect him to show a little brilliance from time to time. From there, we expect him to take some steps forward.''

End advance for Thurs., Sept. 26