At last, one milestone and long-awaited victory has been achieved. And no, it’s not breaking Dale Jr’s winless-streak. I’m talking about a feat only one other NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) race team has accomplished: Two Hundred Wins. Hendrick Motorsports achieved that last week with a victory by a race-dominating Jimmie Johnson and his #48 Lowes Chevrolet team at Darlington Raceway in the Bojangles’ Southern 500. Denny Hamlin came in as the runner-up (a trend you’ll see again), followed by Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr the top five finishers. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, and Joey Logano rounded out the top-ten.
The teams get a bit of a break this week, as they’re racing on their home turf of the 1.5-mile quad oval track of the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the non-points-earning Sprint All-Star Race. It’s a very non-traditional race for a cool million dollars to the winner. In this race tonight, the format is: Sprint Showdown first–two segments of twenty laps apiece. After the first segment is a Caution Flag, where the drivers may elect to pit but lose position. Segment two is counted as Green Flag laps only. The top two finishers in the Showdown qualify for berths in the All-Star Race. In addition, the driver who wins the Fan Vote automatically wins a berth as well.
Then we’re on to the All-Star race itself.
The format for this race is: Four segments of twenty laps, then an additional segment consisting of a ten-lap shootout. Each of the first four segments has a Caution Flag at the end, where drivers may make an optional pit stop. After the fourth segment, the winners of the first four segments will line up first in the entire field behind the pace car, and all drivers must make a four-tire pit stop. The order they come out of the pits is the order in which they will start the shootout, where only Green Flag laps count. (Jayski.com)
Now, aside of those who have to race their way into the race, there were twenty teams who had automatic berths. Those qualifications include (courtesy of Jayski.com):
- 1st criteria: Drivers who have won races in the current and preceding year. If a driver leaves a team with which he has won a race, he remains eligible (through the last race before The All-Star Race), the team does NOT
- 2nd criteria: Drivers who are past Sprint Cup champions in the last 10 years
- 3rd criteria: Drivers who have won The All-Star Race in the past 10 years
- 4th criteria: The winning driver of the Sprint Showdown
- 5th criteria: Driver who finishes 2nd in the Sprint Showdown
- 6th criteria: Driver voted in by the fans
So, on top of all the hype and hoopla of the Showdown and those who race their way in, and twenty-three teams will compete for the cash, coin, cha-ching, whichever term you choose. The only other added bonus, is the pit crew who wins each year’s Pit Crew Challenge, held the Thursday prior to the All-Star race, gets to choose its pit stall first. This year, Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowes Chevy pit crew, led by Crew Chief Chad Knaus, took the top honors in the challenge, knocking off two-time defending pit crew of Denny Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Toyota (I told you you’d see this again). So coming off the highs of the win at Darlington and Hendrick’s 200th victory, is the added motivation brought by the pit crew winning the Challenge. Expect a BIG advantage to the #48 team with that #1 pit stall, especially in the pit stop prior to the Segment 5 shootout.
The television coverage tonight is all caught on SPEED Channel, starting with NASCAR Raceday 4pm EDT (a special three-hour edition), the Sprint Showdown at 7pm EDT, with the All-Star race itself broadcast at 9:00pm EDT. The FOX broadcast team of Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds, and Mike Joy will be on hand to call the race. “The Voice” star Tony Lucca will perform the National Anthem, followed by a scheduled flyover by a three-ship of U.S. Air Force T-38s from the 71st Flying Training Wing, Vance AFB Oklahoma.
Two cars will start from the rear of the field: Regan Smith’s #78 Chevy and Kasey Kahne’s #5 Chevy will both start in the rear of the field for the Showdown. Smith had an engine change, Kahne for an accident during qualifying. And the good thing about this evening, NO CHANCE OF RAIN!
Rather than my normal pick format this week, here are a few drivers to look out for in Victory Lane:
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Patriotic)- As I mentioned above, Jimmie and his team are coming off a big win last week. That, and the Pit Crew Challenge win, makes this team the one to beat. Jimmie has six wins, ten top-fives, and fourteen top-ten finishes here. This used to be Jimmie’s house (OK, Lowes used to sponsor the racetrack); we’ll see if he continues his streak to two.
Greg Biffle (#16 3M/O’Reilly Auto Parts Ford)- Greg is also still winless here, with three top-five and six top-ten finishes to his name. He starts fourth, and was second-fastest in practice behind Kyle Busch. Might be a good night for him.
Kyle Busch (#18 M&M’s Toyota)- Kyle is still winless here, with six top-five and nine top-tens. He won the Pole and was fastest in final practice. KyBu will either put himself in Victory Lane, or into a wreck partway through.
Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont Chevrolet)- Gordon’s five wins, sixteen top-fives, and twenty top-tens speak for themselves. He’ll start eighth, and was last (20th) in practice. I see his luck changing soon.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr (#88 JRMotorsports Chevy)- Jr is running a special paint scheme this weekend, commemorating JRM’s fifth anniversary. He was running third-fastest in practice for the showdown. If he doesn’t win the Fan Vote, don’t be surprised if you see him race his way in and repeat his 2000 All-Star race performance (Jr won this race in his rookie season).
I don’t have a lot of Fords in this lineup; they somehow just don’t have the mojo to get to Victory Lane. There’s always a first time, though.
Rumor Mill: Two big stories capturing the conversations this week.
New Number for Kenseth?- A lot of talk this week about Matt Kenseth and the new number it was rumored he would be sporting for the All-Star race. But never fear, it’s actually only for a sponsor that has come on board the #17 team: Fifth-Third (5/3) Bank. They’ve signed on for a multi-race deal with Roush-Fenway Racing, so don’t be surprised to see a “5/3″ on the hood of his #17 Ford tonight.
Kurt Busch in Trouble (Again)- Kurt Busch and his #51 Phoenix Racing team were penalized by NASCAR officials this week, following both a pit-road exhibition and post-race fracas. Busch was fined $50,000 and put on probation, with his crewmembers receiving lesser fines and equal probation penalties. He didn’t seem to worried about this penalty, as Kurt was interviewed this past week by SiriusXM radio. He was quoted as saying “My team has my back, and I have their back”…we’ll see how this one (yet again) plays out into the middle of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Final Thoughts: With Hendrick Motorsports reaching the long-awaited 200-win milestone, I’m betting the pressure is off for the entire Hendrick family. Don’t be surprised as we go into the rest of the season, where you will see multiple HMS cars in Victory Lane, including Dale Jr and Kasey Kahne. Tonight could be the start of that.
So tune in to FOX, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the racing action. And expect SiriusXM to once again broadcast different drivers’ audio. I’ll be providing my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rants on Twitter (@speedglutton).
One final thought—a shoutout to @lamuralla12, my local DirecTV technician, who put me back in the land of the living with a readjustment of my DirecTV dish this week. Never fails when your dish gets knocked out of alignment. He saved me (and my wife, more importantly) a lot of frustration for Saturday night’s race.
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