Speeding Toward $2 Million: Why NASCAR's Sprint All-Star Race Is a Must-Watch
Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (live on Speed at 7 p.m. ET) brings out both the best and worst in NASCAR's top stars.
The best part is the raw speed and horsepower, with drivers taking chances they normally wouldn't in a regular Sprint Cup points race. Plus, a lot of money is at stake—which always is a big motivating factor.
In addition, because there are no points on the line and teams and drivers don't have to worry about where they'll be in the standings after the race, every driver brings his or her A-game to an event that is as close to pure, unadulterated racing and speed as you'll find anywhere.
But there's also a worse side: pushing cars past their mechanical limits, reckless drivers making foolish mistakes when big money is on the line—oftentimes taking innocent drivers with them in huge wreckfests—and teammates are anything but for this one event.
Rather, the 29th edition of the All-Star Race is an “every man or woman for himself/herself” study in human motivation, psychology, racing strategy and courtesy (or lack thereof).
The field for this year's race is all but set, made up of drivers who have won a race since last year's All-Star event. Already in Saturday's field are: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Tony Stewart.
There will be three other entries – the top two finishers in the Saturday night's prelim race, the Sprint Showdown, as well as a fan vote to pick the final competitor for the main event.
No matter what kind of NASCAR fan you are, from diehard to casual observer, here's 10 reasons why Saturday's race is a must-watch event.
Bonus, Baby, Bonus!
The biggest attraction of the All-Star Race has long been its $1 million prize to the winning driver.
But that amount is chump change this year, as Charlotte Motor Speedway owner and All-Star Race host Bruton Smith has upped the ante with an extra $1 million "Bruton's Big Bonus."
As a result, drivers now have two million reasons to go all-out to win on Saturday night.
But, there's a catch: a driver must win all five segments to take home the $1 million bonus. Winning less than all five segments means just one thing: no bonus.
If you don't think that kind of money will ratchet up the excitement and utter craziness on the racetrack, think again. The extra cash could turn this race into NASCAR's version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome meets demolition derby.
While the big cash prize is a huge motivating factor, leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway as the winning driver of the All-Star Race is almost as much of a motivating factor.
We're talking bragging rights here, baby. And few sports and athletes love to brag more than NASCAR and its drivers.
That you managed to survive the All-Star Race, which, at times, has been a wreckfest that puts Talladega's "Big One" to shame, is saying something—and that's something big.
If you're a driver, you may never win a Sprint Cup championship or a Daytona 500 in your career. But if you win even one All-Star Race, you'll forever be recognized as the individual who was the best of the best in one of the hardest races to win anywhere.
Best Chances for Little Guys to Hold Their Own with the Big Guys
The format for the All-Star Race guarantees a level playing field for all competitors. It's also one of the best opportunities for lesser-funded or smaller race teams to go head-to-head against the biggest and best organizations in the sport.
Simply put, there won't be any start-and-park cars in this race. No way, no how.
We talked about prestige in the previous slide. Can you imagine the added prestige that comes with a driver from a smaller team beating his counterparts at organizations like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and the like?
Sure, big names like Jeff Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson—defending champ from last year's race—are tied with the late Dale Earnhardt for the most All-Star Race wins (three each). Meanwhile, Mark Martin has two All-Star triumphs.
Other active past All-Star winners include Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
But the little guys still have a shot—particularly those competing in the Sprint Showdown, a race within a race, where the top two finishers "transfer" to the night's main event, along with a third driver who is chosen by a fan vote online.
Among drivers who have jumped from the Showdown to the All-Star Race over the last decade include Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Scott Riggs, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr. and David Ragan.
Big Mo: A Great Way to Start off the Mddle Part of the Season
The All-Star Race is sandwiched perfectly between points-paying races at Darlington a week prior and the sport's longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600, at Charlotte Motor Speedway one week later.
While most teams build special cars solely for the All-Star Race, a good finish and the resulting momentum can translate to the subsequent points races, starting with the 600.
Drivers who have struggled this year, most notably three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya, can kick off not only the middle part of the season, but essentially a new season for themselves with the momentum gained from a win or a high finish in the All-Star Race.
And there's plenty of precedent of what an All-Star Race win can mean in the bigger picture.
Consider that Jeff Gordon won the 2001 All-Star Race and went on to win his fourth Sprint Cup championship later that season.
Then there's Jimmie Johnson, who won the 2006 All-Star Race and went on to win the first of five straight Sprint Cup championships later that season.
Or how about Carl Edwards, who won the 2011 All-Star Race and went on to tie for the Sprint Cup championship that season with Tony Stewart, who was ultimately crowned champ by virtue of winning the first tiebreaker (more wins in the season) over Edwards.
Pure Racing: Speed and Nothing but Speed
The All-Star Race is an event where a driver puts everything on the line and doesn't hold back. Some like to call it pure, unadulterated speed and racing.
Drivers don't have to worry about points or standings. Rather, all they have to do is simply go out and mash the gas pedal and hope that they don't get caught up in another driver's wreck.
This year's field is built from drivers who have won races in both 2012 and 2013 prior to the All-Star Race. Even if a driver leaves a team (like Matt Kenseth, who left Roush Fenway Racing after last season in favor of Joe Gibbs Racing this season), he's still eligible—although his old team isn't.
Also eligible are Sprint Cup champs and All-Star Race winners from the past 10 years, the winner and runner-up of the Sprint Showdown and a driver voted in by the fans.
Five Segments = Five Races in One
One of the biggest complaints fans have had in recent years is how big-name drivers may win or finish strongly in the first or second segment in the All-Star Race and then lay back in the field until the final segment.
That won't be the case this year, as where a driver finishes in each segment will be crucial. His or her average finish from each of the four 20-race segments will determine his or her placement in the running order for the fifth and final 10-race segment in Saturday's race.
So, a guy like Jimmie Johnson, who has made it almost an art form with the way he's laid back in past All-Star events, only to charge to the front in the final segment, will have to race hard from the drop of the green flag on Lap 1 to the checkered flag on Lap 90.
This new addition to the format will definitely enhance the excitement and attention factor for fans, particularly the millions that will watch the event on television.
A word of advice, fans: Stock up on food and drink before the race begins, because with the enhanced importance of average finish per each segment, you won't want to leave your seat for even a minute!
You Can't Tell the Format Without a Program
At times over the years, the All-Star Race has seemed contrived or convoluted, with changes to the format seemingly every year.
Not surprisingly, there's a new wrinkle in this year's format. Now, stay with us, because this can get confusing.
Where a driver finishes in each of the first four 20-lap segments will be crucial, as the average finish in each of those parts will go towards determining the starting order for the winner-take-all 10-lap final segment.
Here's how it works, according to a NASCAR press release explaining the new format: "The running order at the completion of the fourth segment (Lap 80) will be repositioned based on the average finish for the first four segments directly behind the caution car prior to the opening of pit road for the mandatory four-tire pit stop prior to the fifth and final segment.
"The order of the cars returning to the track will determine the starting order of the fifth segment. Running order ties will be broken by the finish of the fourth segment."
In the same press release, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton broke down the advantage of the new format: "Having the average finish through the race’s first four segments determine how the cars come down pit road for the last mandatory four-tire pit stop takes the competition to an even higher level. The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is truly a showcase event for our sport and this format should bring out the best in our drivers and our teams."
Watch Out, Here Comes David Ragan!
David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports enjoyed a big taste of winning following Ragan's out-of-nowhere push to Victory Lane at Talladega two weeks ago.
That win gave Ragan an automatic berth in Saturday night's All-Star Race.
As a result, don't be surprised if Ragan goes all-out, just like he did at Talladega, to be a serious contender for the All-Star Race's pot of gold.
Two million bucks of incentive does that to a guy who has struggled the last few years, you know?
Fans Have a Big Say in the Main Event Lineup
This is one of the best parts of the All-Star Race, as fans get to pick the 22nd and final competitor in the field from the preliminary Sprint Showdown event (not including the two drivers who transfer in from that event to the All-Star Race) and vote him or her into the main event via an online ballot.
Sure, it's essentially a popularity vote, but the "Fan Vote" has become one of the most exciting and intriguing parts of each All-Star Race.
This year's Fan Vote outcome could be one of the most captivating in All-Star history. Could Danica Patrick, in her first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, become the first female driver to be voted into the All-Star Race? She certainly has a huge fanbase to do just that, for sure.
Odds for Patrick are good, particularly since the sport's other big fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is already locked into the All-Star Race field by virtue of winning at Michigan last June.
But remember this: Whether you vote for Patrick or another driver, you only have yourself to blame if your driver tanks in the main event.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski