Drivers to watch

Updated: May 19, 2004, 12:53 PM ET news services

Check out a short list of favorites for Saturday's Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C.:

Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch:
At this point last season, he was the only driver to win two races and finished 2003 with four wins; had been in the top five in the Nextel Cup points standings for five straight weeks, but plummeted four spots after finishing 31st in the Chevy American Revolution 400 at Richmond International Raceway; it was his third straight finish outside the top 20, but he has been among the top 10 in the standings for 10 straight race weeks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
Became the first rookie to win this event, when it was known as The Winston in 2000; became the first three-time winner in the Nextel Cup Series this season when he led 115 laps and won the Chevy American Revolution 400; the three victories tie his career high, set in 2001; increased his lead atop the points standings to 40 over Jimmie Johnson and is first for the fourth consecutive week; leads the circuit with $3,252,600 - no other driver has more than $2.5 million.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon:
Had won consecutive races and was third after the final restart last week at Richmond, but was nearly put into the wall on turn 3 by Tony Stewart and finished sixth. "We're seeing it every weekend and you'd think a guy getting abuse by the media and the drivers would start thinking a little bit more," Gordon said of Stewart. "He had a much faster car, fresher tires, got inside of me and the position was his and he just drove straight into me and put me into the wall, about put himself into the wall;" leads the Nextel Cup Series with nine top-10 finishes this year and has three victories in the all-star event, tying him with the late Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.

Kevin Harvick:
Finished 25th at Richmond for his second-worst performance of the season and dropped two slots in the points standings to eighth; has made three appearances in the all-star race, with his best finish being seventh last season; has been among the top 10 in the standings for six consecutive weeks

Jimmie Johnson:
Delighted his owners, Hendrick Motorsports, and primary sponsor, Lowe's -- both are located close to Concord -- by winning this event last season and following it up the next week with a victory here in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600; was runner-up at Richmond last week, but fell from 25 to 40 points behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took the checkered flag. "I think there was more pressure on us coming back for the fall race at Lowe's last year than this one," Johnson said. "This is a new year and new circumstances, so you wipe the slate clean and start over."

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth:
First career Winston Cup victory was recorded in the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 here on May 28, 2000; that season he edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year honors; was edged by Earnhardt last week and finished fifth at Richmond for his fifth top-five finish of the season; the 2002 Winston Cup champion is fourth in the standings and has been among the top 10 for 46 straight weeks, which is the longest current streak in the Nextel Cup Series; is one of just three drivers to lead the standings this season as he was first for four straight weeks; has driven in the all-star event three times, with his best showing being third place in 2002.

Bobby Labonte:
The surging Corpus Christi, Texas resident was third at Richmond for his fourth straight top-10 finish; that performance moved him up to seventh in the standings with 1,430 points. "We've had a string of good runs lately and that's what it takes to contend for a championship," Labonte said. "We're coming together as a team, and we just need to stay consistent, and the points will take care of themselves;" The 2000 Winston Cup champion won the all-star event in 1999 after finishing second the previous two years.

Ryan Newman:
Became the second rookie to win the all-star race in 2002 and was eliminated in the second segment last year when he was tapped by Sterling Martin in a battle for position; led the Winston Cup Series with eight wins in 2003 but is seeking his first victory this season; has two poles this year, nine shy of his 2003 total; two of his poles last season came here in the Coca-Cola 600 in May and the UAW-GM Quality 500 in October.

Elliott Sadler:
One of just four drivers to be among the top 10 in the standings each week this season and increased his lead over 11th-place rookie Kasey Kahne to 89 points after finishing 12th last week at Richmond; is making his fourth appearance in the all-star event and has never finished in the top 10. "The all-star race can be compared to a cage match," Sadler said. "There's no holding back or waiting for the right moment. Each segment is very short and the drivers have to work hard and fast."

Tony Stewart:
The agressive 2002 Winston Cup champion should not count on receiving a birthday present from Jeff Gordon when he turns 33 on Thursday; Stewart, who drew the ire of veteran Rusty Wallace after the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, nearly wrecked Gordon's Chevrolet Monte Carlo with 46 laps remaining in the Chevy American Revolution 400; although Stewart has been cited for his fiery nature in the past, he did not accept blame for the incident with Gordon. "There were a lot of guys with body rubs. If contact gets you a suspension for a race or two, we'll have only 18 cars next week," Stewart said; climbed three spots in the standings to fifth place after finishing fourth at Richmond; has three top-10 finishes in five starts in the all-star race, including a runner-up showing in 1999.