Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Sprint All-Star

Bob MargolisContributor IIMay 13, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Sprint All-Star

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    Jeff Gordon at the 2013 Sprint All-Star Race
    Jeff Gordon at the 2013 Sprint All-Star RaceJared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Want a recipe for the most entertaining night of motorsports on the planet?

    Take about 20 to 25 of the best NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. Put them in built-for-this-race-only stock cars. Instill each of them with a no-holds-barred, win-at-any-cost attitude. Tempt them with a huge paycheck for the winner ($1 million). Put them on an ultra-fast track in front of a screaming nighttime crowd filled with family and friends. Then broadcast it live to a national audience.

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Sprint All-Star race.

    The cars? They’re one-offs and are expected to be returned to the shop with substantial damage. Not that this race is a demolition derby. No, it’s far from that. These cars come with every little tweak and turn the engineers and crew chiefs at the race shop can come up with that will pass pre-race inspection and make them go just a bit faster than the other cars. 

    And what makes this event even more special is that it highlights the team aspect of NASCAR racing. There is a mandatory pit stop in both qualifying and the race itself.

    It is a made-for-television extravaganza that is not to be missed. Here is a great chance to show your friends that aren't NASCAR fans why you love the sport. Invite them over Saturday night. They won't be disappointed.

The Challenge of Nighttime Racing

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Racing at night, while offering a comfortable environment for the people involved—both fans and competitors alike—brings with it a unique set of issues to address.

    The cooler nighttime air means the engine in Kyle Busch’s Toyota that normally produces more than 800 horsepower will produce even more. This a free bonus that doesn’t just affect him—it affects everyone and makes the cars faster. Expect speeds on the front straightaway to be right around 200 mph.

    All that speed is going to change the way the drivers drive as well.

    A hot and often slick race track during the day becomes an even less forgiving track at night by producing more grip. This also makes the cars go faster. A good crew chief and a talented driver will figure out the right setup that will allow a the driver to keep his or her right foot planted onto the floor all the way around the track. During the race broadcast, listen for any driver who says he or she is doing this. These are usually the best of the best.

    Goodyear’s tires, which are always being pushed to their limits by engineers and crew chiefs, will get an even more intense workout. Radical front suspension setups and even some on the rear suspension, designed to produce a wider comfort zone for the driver, will place an additional load, even in the cooler night air, on the already overworked tires.

Who Has the Best 1.5-Mile Setup?

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    Jimmie Johnson leads the field during the 2013 Sprint All-Star Race
    Jimmie Johnson leads the field during the 2013 Sprint All-Star RaceJared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Expect to see a lot of the above, the No. 48 at the front of the field, Saturday night.

    Based on their performance last weekend at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have a solid car setup for the 1.5-mile race tracks, and Charlotte Motor Speedway (CMS) is one of them.

    Also keep in mind that CMS is often referred to as "Jimmie’s House." JJ and Co. have won six points races at the track. They've also scored an amazing 12 top-fives and—that's just in points races. That's not including their four wins in the All-Star event. 

    Adding to the list of teams with a good 1.5-mile setup is last week’s race winner Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, who finished third.

    Success on the 1.5-mile tracks is a key to winning the Sprint Cup championship. CMS is also a Chase track, so figuring it out is of critical importance.

    Over the past decade, dominance on the 1.5-mile tracks has been a bit like musical chairs. First it was Roush Fenway Racing, then Joe Gibbs Racing and more recently it’s been Hendrick Motorsports. This season, Team Penske looks like it may be the team to beat after wins at Las Vegas and Texas.

Gordon at the Start of a Win Streak?

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Jeff Gordon’s win at Kansas Speedway last weekend ended weeks of frustration for the 42-year-old driver.

    His No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports entry was often the car to beat this season, only to have victory snatched away due to one issue or another.

    This Alan Gustafson-led group may be the best in Sprint Cup racing at the moment. The team's 1.5-mile setup appears to be spot on. And Gordon has made no secret that he’s not slowing down and that he’s in it to win the Sprint Cup title—an even more attainable goal now that he’s won a race and has his ticket into the Chase.

    Gordon has three All-Star wins (1995, 1997, 2001), but it's been more than a decade since he’s won it. Still, this is a team on a mission and now that Gordon and his team have their ticket into postseason play, there’s no stopping them.

Kurt Busch: The Heat Is On

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    On Saturday, Kurt Busch will face the first real test of his Double Duty. Just past noon in Indianapolis, Busch will face the stress of having to qualify his Andretti Motorsports entry into the Indianapolis 500.

    Four perfect laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is what is required of him. If he’s one of the nine fastest drivers, he will advance to the next round, the Shootout.

    On Sunday, if he’s not among the top nine, he’ll get another attempt at four perfect laps to determine his starting position. If he's one of the nine fastest, he’ll compete in the Shootout.

    Either way, it’s going to be a tough weekend for the 35-year-old.

Pit Road Perfection

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    The choreographed ballet that is a NASCAR Sprint Cup pit stop will play an integral part in who wins Saturday night.

    It sounds simple: Change four tires and fill ‘er up with gas. But try and do all of that to a hot 3,300-pound stock car in about 12 seconds with six crew members and some support staff behind the pit wall and you’ll soon discover the organized chaos that is a pit stop.

    Of course, before the driver brings his or her car onto pit road, deciding what to do during that stop that is also critical. Take two tires or take four? Make a chassis adjustment? Add or take away tire pressure on the front tires or on the rear? Or on just the left side or the right?

    Then there’s the fuel cans—two of them, each with 12 gallons of Sunoco Green E15 (that means it's 15 percent ethanol), weighing just over 80 pounds apiece. That means the gasman is usually a pit crew's biggest guy.

    A mistake or a misstep on pit road can cost a driver the race. In the All-Star event, there is a pit stop in both qualifying and in the race itself. 

    Perfection isn’t just required, it’s expected.

All-Star Fan Vote

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Fans from around the world will once again get the opportunity to vote one driver into the All-Star field.

    Voting began in March and ends the day before the race. Fans can cast their ballots an unlimited number of times to help determine the starting lineup for the prestigious race. The driver who receives the highest number of votes will earn a starting spot

    AJ Allmendinger grabbed headlines by saying that NASCAR fans had to be tired of voting for Danica Patrick, who won the All-Star fan vote last year. We'll soon see.

Wreck Aftermath

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    Chaos and destruction on the race track. It happens.

    Last Saturday night’s wreck involving six cars, including the No. 38 of David Gilliland, on fire in the photo above, is still a topic of discussion in NASCAR. Gilliland tweeted Monday that he had been cleared to drive, which is good news.

    NASCAR has seen more than its share of wrecks over the years, but last weekend’s was one of the more spectacular ones. However, the results of the wreck once again demonstrated the ability of the Gen-6 race car to take a hard hit and protect the driver.

    The force of the accident tore much of the car away, which is by design, leaving the driver’s compartment pretty much intact.