NASCAR Wire Service
No matter how you slice it, this year's running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (7:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Charlotte Motor Speedway promises plenty of action and unbridled speed as 22 drivers vie for the checkers and a payout that could have them singing a merry tune all the way to the bank.
The annual non-points race is known for its non-stop action and the mad dash to the checkered flag. Of course, that is fueled by the $1 million payout the victor receives.
However, that's not all the winner could potentially take to the bank. This year, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Charlotte Motor Speedway have added a special incentive for drivers to run at the front of the pack the entire race. If a driver wins all five segments of the all-star race, he or she will take home an additional $1 million.
Although the race doesn't have any direct implications on the points standings, the possible $2 million payout is just one of many reasons drivers find the event enticing.
"[The race] means a lot. Now, it's got a million more reasons if you're able to win all the segments," said Jimmie Johnson, last year's race winner and one of only three drivers to win the event three times. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt are the other two.
Though it's probably not the primary thought going through most drivers' minds while circling the track, the evening race should allow teams to better gauge how their car's setup will handle the Charlotte track and evening temperatures during the Coca-Cola 600 the following week and make adjustments.
"It's fun to race without points and that sets you up for a nice Memorial (Day) weekend and a good starting point with your race car," said Johnson.
Johnson and Gordon, both of whom will be in the starting field, will be joined by 20 other drivers. Seventeen of their competitors have already been determined: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Tony Stewart.
In order to qualify for the race a driver must have won a NASCAR Sprint Cup points race in 2012 or 2013, have won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in the last 10 years, have won the championship in the last 10 years, finish in the top two in the 40-lap Sprint Showdown or receive the most Sprint Fan Votes.
The Sprint Showdown will be run immediately prior to the all-star race on Saturday night with the top-two finishers transferring over to the main event. The final entrant in the race, the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote who finished the Showdown with a car deemed "raceable," won't be known until he or she is announced during driver introductions. Only drivers that haven't already qualified for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race are eligible to receive votes and participate in the Showdown.
Drivers who have yet to qualify for the all-star event include Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In 2008, Kahne became the only driver in the event's history to make the field via fan vote and go on to win the race. To make the story even better, Kahne and his team used the knowledge they gathered during the all-star race to put the car back in Victory Lane one week later in the Coca-Cola 600.
The meaning of being voted into the event by fans isn't lost on the drivers.
"Obviously our sport revolves around the fans. We talk about it all the time. Without them, there would be no NASCAR," said Truex, who was voted into the race by the fans in 2005. "To get voted in by the fans was one of the coolest things I've ever had happen to me in my whole career."
Unfortunately, he wasn't as successful in his race as Kahne was -- he finished 16th out of 22.
The number of laps and breakdown of segments remain unchanged from last year, when it was changed to a 90-lap affair with five segments. The first four segments are 20 laps each, with a final 10-lap dash to the cash.
How the cars line up for the final segment, however, has changed. Last year the winners of the first four segments were guaranteed to start in the first four positions for the final 10 laps, regardless of how they finished the penultimate segment.
This year, there will a mandatory four-tire pit stop between the fourth and fifth segments. Prior to entering pit road for the stops, the cars will be repositioned based on the average finishing position in the first four segments, thus further amplifying the importance of running near the front of the pack throughout the race. The order in which the cars return to the track after their four-tire pit stops will determine how they line up for the fifth and final segment.
The new rules should provide more quality on-track action with drivers fighting throughout the race to stay at the front or near the front of the pack, as well as making pit road strategy more integral to the overall outcome of the race.
"[NASCAR] did a good job at coming up with a format this year that is going to be more conducive to better racing," said Joey Logano, who won last June's Pocono race to qualify for the all-star event. "This year, the big question will be pit strategy and when to come in, when you take tires and such."
CRAFTON EXCITED FOR CHARLOTTE, REST
The last time we saw the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was Saturday, April 20 at Kansas Speedway.
In that race, Matt Crafton passed Darrell Wallace Jr. with 30 laps to go and held on to the lead the rest of the way for the win. He celebrated with family, fans and teammates in Victory Lane, but six days later his life changed.
On April 26, his life was turned upside down and yet it was probably one of the best days of his life. He and his wife Ashley celebrated the arrival of their first child Elladee.
Sleep has evaded him since.
Aside from the normal adrenaline rush drivers get when heading to the race track for a race, when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series arrives at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Friday night's North Carolina Education Lottery 200 (8:00 p.m. ET, SPEED), Crafton will be looking forward to more than just getting back on the track.
"I need to get back to racing, so I can get some rest," said Crafton, who took over first place in points from Johnny Sauter after his Kansas win. "I'm always excited to go to the race track -- but usually you go to the race track and you don't get much sleep because you're worried about everything, the night before the race -- you think about everything. This week, I'm excited to get to the race track so I can get some sleep."
In his ninth year with ThorSport Racing, Crafton is one of only two drivers this season to finish in the top 10 in each of the first four races. The other driver is Sauter. Aside from his win in the last race, he has a runner-up finish (Martinsville) and sixth- and ninth-place finishes.
Crafton has won three times, finished in the top five 58 times and in the top 10 160 times in 298 races. His best season was 2009, when he finished a career-best second in the points to Ron Hornaday Jr. Although he didn't find Victory Lane that year, he set career highs in top fives (11) and top 10s (21).
He's experienced success at Charlotte, where he won at in 2008. In 10 visits to the track, he's landed in the top 10 seven times and in the top 15 nine times. His only finish outside the top 15 was in 2011 when a three-car accident left him 26th at the end of the race.
His success at the 1.5-mile track is just one other reason why he's looking forward to getting back to racing.
"I'm super-excited about this Charlotte race -- even more than I usually am," said Crafton. "With all the momentum that the team's carrying into this race, I know the guys are still on cloud nine from the Kansas win and I'm up there with them, from the win and having our child. So I'm super-stoked about it."