Amy Henderson · Thursday May 18, 2006
This week, the Nextel Cup Series takes a break from points racing and returns to NASCAR’s roots of Saturday night racing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The event begins with a last-ditch hooligan race (otherwise known as the Nextel Open) to make the field, and ends with the night’s feature – the Nextel All-Star Challenge.
The Challenge is truly NASCAR’s version of the All-Star game. To qualify for this elite field, drivers must do one of five things:
- They can win a race in the current or the previous season;
- They can be a Cup Champion within the last ten years, or have won the All-Star race in that same time period;
- They can race their way in via winning the Nextel Open;
- If, after all drivers meeting the above criteria, the total number of drivers eligible is less than 20 (not the case in 2006), NASCAR takes the most recent winner previous to the last two years not already eligible, and keeps going on down that line until the field is full;
- They can be a driver who is participating in the Nextel Open that becomes voted into the All-Star race by the fans. Fans can vote right up until the Nextel Open itself for one of those drivers to make the field.
With those criteria in mind, 21 drivers will qualify for the event this year, including the winners of the Open and the fan vote. Of that group, twenty will race on Saturday, with the exception being 1996 Cup champion Terry Labonte, who elected not to enter.
The evening’s first race, the Nextel Open, is open to all active Cup drivers not eligible for the Challenge. Thirty-one drivers are expected to take the green flag. They’ll race just thirty laps, in two segments: a twenty lap race followed by a yellow flag during which teams may -but do not have to – complete a pit stop and adjust their cars, and then a ten-lap race for entry to the Challenge. Qualifying for the Open is similar to a regular Cup race, with the fastest of two laps determining a driver’s time.
The All-Star Challenge is 90 laps in length and run in three segments. The first segment is forty laps long, and green AND yellow flag laps count toward the total (in the Open and the other segments, only green-flag laps count), and it is followed by a break in which teams will pit, but may not change springs, shock absorbers, or front or rear clips.
During that break, a random draw determines how many cars will be inverted for the start of the second, 30-lap segment, meaning winning isn’t always everything in the early going. There will be another yellow flag period after that during which cars may pit, and then a final 20-lap shootout to the finish.
What To Expect
Expect two wild races, with moves you would rarely see in a points race. When there are no points on the line and cars that are specially built for this race, so teams don’t have to run their Coke 600 machines. It’s all about braggin’ rights, and everybody wants to brag.
Last year’s Open seemed a lock for Mike Bliss until the last lap. Brian Vickers got into Bliss on the last turn of the last lap and spun him sideways, taking the spoils for himself. The Challenge itself has seen numerous crashes and bad blood, even between friends and teammates. But no hard feelings, brother. This one’s for all the marbles.
Who to Watch
Jimmie Johnson unabashedly calls Lowe’s Motor Speedway “my house,” having won four straight Nextel Cup points races there. With a new surface and a new tire compound so hard Fred Flintstone would envy its durability, though, Johnson may find a few uninvited guests in his house. Mark Martin burned up LMS in the days when short spoilers and hard tires were everyday occurrences. He’s not the only one happy to say those Goodyears back; the softer tire of the last two seasons knocked Ryan Newman for a loop, but if he finds this compound more to his liking, we could get a reminder why his nickname is "Rocketman."
A let-it-all-hang-out for the glory race with a cool million on the line? Sounds like something where Tony Stewart will rise to that challenge. Meanwhile, LMS president and prognosticator Humpy Wheeler also picked Roushketeer Carl Edwards to win, and he’s picked correctly in over half of the 17 All-star races. Finally, Jeff Gordon dominated this race and this track while his teammate Johnson was still racing in the desert, winning the All-Star Challenge three times since 1995. He’d love to regain his old territory on top this Saturday.
Did You Know:
- That the All-Star race was once held at Atlanta Motor Speedway? That’s right…but only once. The race was moved back to Charlotte, where it has stayed ever since.
- That the All-star race gave rise to the words collectors and diecast manufacturers alike love to hear: Special Paint Scheme? Special schemes, like the now-famous and highly sought after silver scheme raced by Dale Earnhardt, first became commonplace in this race. Eleven cars are expected to have special schemes this year.
- That if there was a short field, Joe Nemechek and Elliott Sadler would be first in line to fill the vacant driver spots? Both had wins in 2004, but not the past two seasons.
You Don’t Say"¦
“There are so many bragging rights that come with winning that event. I had the pleasure of winning the last Winston (in 2003 before NASCAR sponsorship changed). There was a lot of build up before it. And after winning, it was worth every emotion. There are just a lot of bragging rights in the garage area, but also with the media and the fans to win our All-Star event. It’s a special thing. The short format gets everyone all pumped up. We all do get serious when it’s time to race. We just flip on that racing switch and get that race-mode going. But the fact that it’s such a short format really pumps everybody up, and you know you’ve got a short period of time to get it done compared to other races that are 500 or 600 miles in length.” driver Jimmie Johnson on the All-Star Challenge
“It’s an all or nothing race, pretty much like the whole evening. Only the winner of the NEXTEL Open advances to the All-Star event, and everyone out there wants to be in that race. I believe there is a fan vote that gets one extra driver in, but we’re going out there to win this thing. We’ve got a strong race car, and I believe we have a legitimate shot at it. It’s a short race, so it’s pretty important to get a good starting position. We’ll give it all we have and hopefully we’ll come out on top.” rookie driver Reed Sorenson on the Nextel Open
“I think it’s a fair comparison to say that it is the equivalent of the NBA’s or Major League Baseball’s All-Star breaks, just like our Daytona 500 is the equivalent of the NFL’s Super Bowl. It’s our All-Star weekend. This is our weekend to kick back and have a good time while we’re still competing. It’s not as stressful as the weekends where we’re worrying about points and all that, but we’re here to have a good time and put on a good show. I think any All-Star type event tries to accomplish the same thing whether you’re talking about football, basketball or baseball or whatever.” driver Dale Jarrett on how NASCAR’s All-Star even compares with those of other sports
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