This is the time of the year where NASCAR gets an un-official travel break.
It’s the All-Star week and all the teams stay within the Charlotte area where they and most of the drivers live. Last week’s race at Darlington is only a few a hundred miles away so by the time they hit Dover on May 31, they’ll have had four weeks of sleeping in their own bed.
Following the All-Star race this week in Charlotte is the season’s longest race, The Coca-Cola 600 at the same venue. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but all the drivers love the month of May just because it is somewhat of a break, even though they don’t have a week off.
The format for this year’s All-Star race has changed a bit. The first segment will be 50 laps followed by separate 20 lap segments and then the final 10 lap dash for the checkers. There are 19 drivers currently eligible and three others will be able to get in by way of a qualifying race held on Saturday called the Sprint Showdown.
To initially be invited, a driver must have won a race in the previous year or this season. They may also get in by being a past Cup champion or have won the All-Star race within the last 10 years. The top two finishers in the Showdown will make the All-Star race. A fans poll determines the third and final entry.
Last season Kasey Kahne got the fans vote and went on to win the whole thing in shocking fashion. Not only did Kahne go from not winning the Showdown to winning the All-Star, but he carried that momentum into the next week and captured the Coca-Cola 600.
This year’s cast of characters to win the All-Star can likely be found glancing at results from Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas. Like those three tracks, Charlotte is a high-banked fast 1.5 mile "D" shaped oval. Each of the four tracks has its own characteristics that make them unique, but the set-ups for each car remain relatively the same.
If drivers did well on two of the three similar tracks, they’re likely to do well this week.
The only one to finish in the top 10 of all three this season is Jeff Gordon. He was sixth in Vegas, second in Atlanta, first in Texas. If it weren’t for such a dominating performance by Kurt Busch in Atlanta, Gordon would be looking at having two wins. He is a three-time winner of the All-Star, the last coming in 2000.
Gordon is the driver to beat.
Seven others have two top 10 finishes in the three races, and surprisingly one of them isn’t Kyle Busch. Kyle, who won the Vegas race, is the 9-2 favorite this week due to his three wins this season and that the final 10 lap dash is right up his alley.
Of all the drivers in the Series, no one is better than Kyle on re-starts and letting it all hang out for 10 laps. He made quite a name for himself in the Bull Ring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the same Saturday night Specials formats and has carried that style to become NASCAR’s most controversial driver.
Another driver with one top 10 finish on the three similar tracks is Jimmie Johnson. He finished second in the most recent race at Texas, but fared poorly in Vegas and Atlanta. Johnson is a two time winner of the All-Star and since joining the Series, no one has won more at the place that sponsors both his car and the track, Lowe’s Home Improvement.
The hottest driver in the circuit may be Tony Stewart, who came into the season with so many question marks. The biggest was how Stewart would do in the high-banked 1.5 mile tracks that require an immense amount of horsepower.
Stewart failed early on in Las Vegas, but rallied with a seventh in Atlanta and then came in fourth at Texas, an upward progression that shows Stewart’s team has figured things out. Tony hasn’t won a race yet this season, but has been so consistently good in all the events that he finds himself second in points behind Gordon.
After dominating Atlanta, Kurt Busch struggled a bit with a disappointing eighth in Texas. There were high expectations for that Texas race, but the Busch team couldn’t get the right mix for the race and recreate the Atlanta magic.
It’s likely that they’ll have things figured this week in Charlotte and we’ll see the Blue Deuce near the front again. Busch’s most memorable moment in the All-Star still remains with his brother Kyle racing like a bat out of hell and wrecking Kurt while battling for position.
It was perfect testament to just how important this race is. No family ties when going for over $1 million in prize money.
Greg Biffle finished seventh in Vegas and third in Texas. More importantly, it looks like the Roush Racing organization has solved their engine issues. It’s likely that we’ll soon see a Roush car in the winner’s circle on these types of tracks, maybe this week or next in the Coca-Cola.
Mark Martin is a two-time winner of the All-Star race and also a two- time winner this season. It’s the first time since 1999 that Martin has had multiple wins in a season and he’s still got 25 races to improve on it and tackle his career best of 7 from 1998.
So far, so good for Martin who has just signed on to run another full season with Hendrick Motorsports. Thus far, every Hendrick driver that is serious about driving and not selling gear has won a race.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Micah Roberts