Elite Cup drivers chasing $1 million payday
Want wild and wacky? Fast and furious? The Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway promises to deliver, writes Mark Ashenfelter.
Wild and wacky. Fast and furious. Those are just two of the many ways to describe Saturday's Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway. With no points on the line, NASCAR's version of an all-star game is often a no-holds-barred affair.
And this year, it will resemble a race more than usual as some of the gimmicks -- including the "inversion" that would shuffle drivers between segments -- have been eliminated. The Challenge will be run in four 20-lap segments with the winner earning at least $1 million.
The field will feature 21 drivers, with the top two finishers from the Nextel Open advancing to the Challenge. In addition, the winner of the fan vote will take the final starting spot.
At which point, virtually everyone in attendance will hope that's when the fireworks begin in Concord, N.C.
Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner of the race, knows how crazy it can be. Tied with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most wins in the event, he'd relish the chance to set one more mark on the way to what he hopes is his fifth championship.
"This is an exciting race for the fans but an exciting race for the teams and drivers, as well," Gordon said. "It's run under the lights with a lot of different paint schemes. There's just a different feel about this race.
"You have to take chances to win this race, but you also have to be smart about when and where you take those chances."
Chances taken by other drivers helped Gordon back in 1995, the first time he won this event.
"In 1995, we won every segment, but it still was crazy during the final one," Gordon said. "I remember Darrell Waltrip restarted on the outside of me and Dale was right behind me. Dale made a great move and took us three-wide down the back straightaway.
"I lifted heading into the corner because I didn't think there was any way all three of us were going to make it through the corner. Sure enough, those two got together and crashed, and I was able to take the win. I'm sure it'll be crazy again this Saturday night during the last segment, but 20 laps is a lot of laps. And so much can happen in 20 laps at Lowe's Motor Speedway."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven starts in the race, a performance highlighted by his 2000 victory as a rookie. Many, though, remember the chance he didn't take in 2002, when he resisted the opportunity to turn Ryan Newman as the two battled for the win on the final lap.
Afterward, Junior said it would have been nice to have earned the $750,000 that went to the winner that year, but that it wasn't worth the grief that would have come along with winning that way.
The event, though, is clearly one that he enjoys.
"It's old-school. A short, frantic race where nobody is holding back, nobody is just out there riding around," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You need to haul butt and do it for the full race. Our test at Charlotte [last week] was really a good one, very productive. For a two-day test, we learned a lot we can apply to the race this week and for the [Coca-Cola] 600.
"We have a car we've been working on that I think will be really good. We've made a lot of changes to it because it only has to last 120 laps. You're not worried about it going 400 or 500 miles, so you can do things kind of like we used to do in the short-track days. That's what makes this so much fun: it's like being back on the short tracks and letting it all hang out for the sprint rather than the marathon.
"Me and the whole team have always loved that kind of atmosphere and really relish that kind of attitude toward a race," Earnhardt Jr. added. "The crew guys get recognized at the introductions and we get to go out near the fans right before the race. It's the way it should be. Under the lights. A lot of excitement. And a million bucks to win? Of course that's the topping on the cake. Anybody that tells you they don't have their eye on that million is lying to your face."
Jimmie Johnson clearly has his eyes on defending his championship and regaining his place in Victory Lane at the track. He's won five points races there and has eight straight top-three finishes, including a pair of runner-up efforts to Kasey Kahne last year.
Johnson knows there are many different ways to view the Challenge. He also knows the event's a lot of fun, no matter a driver's motivation.
"We all enter it and say it's not a points race and I certainly think that makes everybody a little bit more aggressive, but when the purse is that large you also take on the mind-set of a points race because you want win," Johnson said. "I think it gets really intense. It's a place where we can try new setups and I think sometimes cars aren't driving like they typically would so guys more are on the ragged edge in some areas. It's just the combination of everything."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
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