Wednesday, May 16, 2012

NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race Preview: $1 Million Purse + No Points at Stake = EXCITEMENT

By Micah Roberts

With over $1 Million at stake and no points n the line, look out! (Getty)
After traveling back and forth across the country since February, the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams get to sleep in their own beds for the next three weeks at home in Charlotte where most of the teams are headquartered. However, It doesn’t mean they get the next three weeks off from racing because they have two important races held at Charlotte Motor Speedway before heading to Dover in June.

This Saturday night is the NASCAR All-Star race, a night filled with two races that have races within each race with the winner getting over $1 million. Then on Memorial day weekend the drivers will race in the Coca-Cola 600.

The difference in the type racing between the two weekends are about as extreme as Talladega is to Martinsville, even though they are both held on the same track. With the All-Star race you have drivers trying to win at all costs with total disregard for their cars and point standings because there are no points, it's basically an exhibition race. Whereas in the Coca-Cola, it’s all about the points and trying to finish well and stay out of trouble.

There’s also the big difference in the purse. Last years Coca-Cola 600 winner, Kevin Harvick, won $406,786 for taking the checkers which is in stark contrast to the $1.2 million Carl Edwards won for taking the All-Star race a week earlier. Needless to say, it pays to be reckless and let it all hang out this week and because of that mentality it is one of the most anticipated races of the season.

“Our All-Star race is a lot different than other sports," Harvick said earlier this week. "With the All-Star race they put a million dollars in front of you. Anytime they put that much money in front of anybody it’s going to cause things to rise to another level. Take the points away from that and you really have some unique scenarios that come up. It’s always fun when you know there is really nothing on the line but to win. If you do, then usually there is a big check waiting for you at the end so that gives you some bragging rights and a lot of money.”

Fans don’t care about points until the Chase comes around, and even then the points are secondary to rooting for their own driver to win that day. The All-Star race brings out the spirit in drivers that fans wish they saw in every race and a $1 million dangling carrot in front of each driver’s windshield is just enough to give them the show they want.

“It seems that teams are always willing to take more risks and try new things when it comes to the All-Star race simply because there aren’t any points associated with this race," said Matt Kenseth, winner of the 2004 All-Star race. "The All-Star race is just a lot of fun because there are a bunch of neat events that lead into the weekend including the Pit Crew Challenge and then having to qualify with a pit stop on Friday. Everyone is chasing the big check at the end of the race and I’m looking forward to having Fifth Third Bank on our car for this weekend for their first Cup race.”

The format of the race is broken down into two events: The Sprint Showdown is a 40-lap preliminary dash for all drivers that don’t meet the qualifications for the All-Star race. The first and second-place drivers from that race will get invited into the big event that has all the big names everyone wants to see without any jalopies getting in their way. Then the fans get to vote in one more driver who didn’t finish in the top-2, known as the Dale Earnhardt Jr rule to some, which gives us 23 total drivers to begin the All-Star race.

The criteria to automatically qualify for the All-Star race is drivers who have won in the current or preceding year, drivers who have won the Sprint Cup title in the last 10 years, or drivers who have won an All-Star race the last 10 years. The race itself consists of four 20-lap segments, concluding with a final 10-lap sprint. In that 10-lap sprint, the winners from each of the first four segments will be placed up front in starting positions 1-4. This is a new wrinkle in this years event to entice drivers to try and race even harder during each of the segments to get the prime position in the final dash, and more importantly, have a much better chance at winning $1 million.

It would be a shock if the one of the four first four drivers starting up front didn't win in that final 10-lap dash.

To get a better read on who might fare the best this week, we should take a look at what happened in Las Vegas and Texas which are both sister tracks of Charlotte. Texas and Charlotte are probably the most similar as far as required set-ups go.

The driver at the top of the list begins with Greg Biffle who won at Texas and finished third in Las Vegas.

“I’m super excited for the All-Star race Saturday night," said Biffle who is running his sixth-place Fontana chassis this week. "No points, I don’t have to worry about anything, it’s kind of like having a week off and getting to drive the car how I want to. The team is pumped up about the Pit Crew Challenge Thursday night and we are excited about trying to win the million dollars Saturday night.”

Jimmie Johnson finished runner-up at both Texas and Las Vegas this season and comes in trying to reclaim his Charlotte dominance that saw him win five of six Charlotte races during one stretch from 2003-06, the final year in which Johnson won the All-Star race. Johnson also won the fall Charlotte race in 2009 and finds that the All-Star race is kind of a tune-up for next week's Coca-Cola 600.

“Yes, for sure," Johnson said regarding to the importance of this week's notes translating to next week's Coca-Cola 600. "Not only for the 600, but we’ve been there some years where we needed to improve our mile-and-a-half stuff and just came with just a totally different concept. It is a great testing weekend with practice and qualifying and all of that stuff. It’s a good time to try stuff, and all teams do.”

Tony Stewart won at Las Vegas and then faded at Texas, but also has a 2009 All-Star trophy and check in his back pocket.

A couple of drivers I would be surprised not to see compete well this week are Martin Truex Jr, Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin from the Michael Waltrip stables. Martin and Truex Jr each had the look of winners in their Texas runs and both should find themselves with high odds making them too tempting to pass on. Truex Jr. will be in the field while Martin should be in the 30-to-1 range.

Another driver that might give reason to take a shot with is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even though he’s not guaranteed to make the race, he’ll get in just because of the fan vote which makes the ‘Field’ bet an interesting one to analyze (LVH listed him in their All-Star odds just because they know fans will get him in if needed). He’s got a good enough to car to win with every week, and some day will. A fond memory for most Junior fans is when he had his coming out party as a rookie in 2000 winning the All-Star race.

Just for the record, he was 20-to-1 to win that race and my sports book got buried that day. I should have listened to Humpy Wheeler who said Junior was going to win before the race. I never made the mistake of not listening to Wheeler before an All-Star race again.     

While this isn’t a crap shoot like Talladega, and only 23 drivers participating with no restrictor-plates on, it is much different than a regular 1.5-mile race because the nature of the money at stake and no points makes it extremely volatile. But it’s still a race and action must be had, so get get ‘em and enjoy the night.

Top-5 Sprint Showdown Finish Prediction:
1) #56 Martin Truex Jr (3/1)
2) #20 Joey Logano (6/1)
3) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (4/1)
4) #22 AJ Allmendinger (7/1)
5) #1 Jamie McMurray (12/1)

Top-5 All-Star Race Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
2) #16 Greg Biffle (8/1)
3) #56 Martin Truex Jr (18/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)

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