The drinks are on Jamie McMurray tonight. The 37-year-old outlasted and outwitted the other 21 drivers in the field to win the 2014 Sprint All-Star Race and take home $1 million in the process.
The No. 1 car had been by far the strongest on the night. McMurrray not only had a great car, but he also deployed a perfect strategy. Starting out the fifth segment in second place, he quickly overtook Carl Edwards for the lead and then put a huge amount of distance between himself and Kevin Harvick.
The way in which he eliminated all of the drama at the finish only illustrated how well he ran on Saturday night. The nature of the All-Star Race lends itself to dramatic finishes; however, McMurray had the win all wrapped up about halfway through the final segment.
According to ESPN.com's Matt Willis, McMurray is the seventh driver all time to win a Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and All-Star Race:
.@jamiemcmurray is the 7th driver to win a Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, All-Star Race (w/Gordon, Johnson, Elliott, Harvick, Newman, Dale Sr.)— Matt Willis (@MattWillisESPN) May 18, 2014
Jimmie Johnson failed in his bid to become the first-ever winner of the All-Star Race three years running. The reigning two-time champion could only muster a sixth-place finish.
Josh Wise, who won the fan vote to earn a spot in the race, finished 15th, which was the lowest among the drivers who finished the race.
Here's how the top 10 shook out. You can view the full standings on NASCAR.com.
|4||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
For those unfamiliar with the All-Star event, the race was broken up into five different segments.
The first four segments were 20 laps apiece, and drivers weren't required to pit. Prior to the fifth and final segment, which was 10 laps, drivers were required to pit and take four tires.
The starting order of the fifth segment was also determined by the drivers' average finish across the four earlier segments.
With so many different breaks, crew chiefs had to determine whether their driver should hit the pits and get new tires or stay out on the track and get better positioning for the next segment. Watching the respective strategies deployed by each team was almost as fun as the race itself.
Denny Hamlin was a prime example in the first segment.
He gambled a bit by opting not to head to the pits upon the completion of Segment 1. He had been hovering near the back for the entirety of the opener, eventually finishing 19th.
Here's what the standings looked like after Segment 1 (by driver car number):
However, by staying out on the track, Hamlin jumped into first for the start of Segment 2. He sandbagged Segment 1 in order to set himself up for later in the race.
NASCAR.com's David Caraviello thought it was a bold strategy by Hamlin and his crew:
Completely understand Hamlin strategy. Only have to hang in there for 20 laps, and then you get chance to be on cycle with everyone else.— David Caraviello (@dcaraviello) May 18, 2014
As with any risk/reward strategy, though, it can backfire in a big way.
The lack of a pit stop meant that the No. 11 car couldn't hold the lead for the whole of the 20 laps in the second segment. His tires lost more and more grip as the segment went on, and making contact with Greg Biffle didn't help matters. That shredded his right front tire and sent him to the back of the pack. Hamlin would end Segment 2 where he began it, in 19th:
Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne used his fresh tires to jump into the lead, jumping from fourth to first over the course of Segment 2.
The first wreck of the race came on the 26th lap. Kyle Busch spun out and was hit by Joey Logano, knocking both drivers out of the race. The wreck could've been much worse as the No. 18 car was a sitting duck in the middle of the track. You can watch how the wreck unfolded below:
For Busch, it's more heartache at the All-Star Race. No other driver has more segment wins without recording a victory:
Kyle Busch has 6 All-Star segment wins, but has never won the final one. Nobody else has ever won more than 2 w/o winning the main event.— Matt Willis (@MattWillisESPN) May 18, 2014
Three laps later, AJ Allmendinger was sent into the wall for the race's second caution.
Those two wrecks slowed the pace for the second segment and gave drivers fewer opportunities to move up the leaderboard. As a result, more drivers faced difficult decisions as to whether or not they would pit before Segment 3.
McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth chose to stay out on the track, which helped them get out to a great start on the third segment.
Biffle chose to pit, and it's a decision he came to regret. He finished the second segment in fourth place but started the third in 11th. After plummeting down the leaderboard, he took his aggression out on his pit crew, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
Greg Biffle tells team of changes on last pit stop: "You f----d it up."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) May 18, 2014
Kahne, on the other hand, maximized his pit stop. Although he lost some ground at the start, he needed all of seven laps to utilize his fresh tires and take the lead in Segment 3, where he would remain until the fourth segment.
It was the second segment in a row in which the No. 5 car was in first place. Harvick, who also pitted before the segment, sat in second.
However, McMurray, Kenseth and Keselowski rounded out the top five. Their gambles paid off in a big way:
NASCAR reporter Marty Snider praised all three drivers for their ability to properly balance the need for tires with the value of staying out on the track:
Tires mean a lot tonight but well played strategy by the 1, 2 and 20.— Marty Snider (@heymartysnider) May 18, 2014
Here's how Segment 4 finished:
Once again, McMurray and Keselowski found themselves in prime positions. McMurray had the lead for most of the segment, before Harvick took the lead on Lap 75. The No. 1 car finished second, with No. 2 right behind in third.
While the race order would be reset heading into the fifth segment, it was important for drivers to finish the fourth segment strong so as to bolster their average standing and bump them higher up the starting order for the last 10 laps.
Segment 4 saw a wreck in Lap 61 that knocked three more cars out of the race. Jeff Gordon's No. 24 caught fire and ending up making contact with Truex and Biffle. That left only 16 out of the 22 drivers who began the All-Star race. The number dropped to 15 when Ryan Newman bowed out on the 77th lap.
Kahne, who had looked great for so much of the race, went into the wall twice during Segment 4, including once after the checkered flag dropped. He apologized to his crew for ruining what had been a great night:
Despite having the second-best average time across the four segments, he was forced into the pits when pit road was closed, which carried a penalty. He had to go to the tail end of the line. Although the No. 5 stayed on the lead lap for the final segment, he was essentially out of contention for the win.
That opened the door for McMurray to move up a spot and start out second behind Edwards. The No. 1 car wasted little time in taking the lead and holding off Harvick.
This is McMurray's second win of the season, although it won't help him out in the points standings. The victory could provide a boost for the rest of the year, though. McMurray and his pit crew will be riding high on Saturday night, and the key will be carrying this over to the Sprint Cup circuit.
At least he's $1 million richer.