With $1 million on the line Saturday night, drivers and fans got a glimpse of what just may happen when points are up for grabs at the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend. While the annual Sprint All-Star event, traditionally run on the weekend prior to Memorial Day, may be an altogether different animal – it’s a 100-lap sprint compared to the longest race on the NASCAR schedule – many teams still view the event as an extended test session. Because of that, don’t be surprised if some of the stronger cars last week will be up front once again, putting what they learned to good use late Sunday night.
While this column is traditionally designed for the upward and downward trends of Sprint Cup drivers as the season progresses, we’ll also take a look at how the hottest and coldest drivers fared in the All-Star Race – and whether or not they’ll stay the course when it really counts this weekend.
Kyle Busch: If his car holds together for the entire 600 miles next week, Busch will be the man to beat once again. With five consecutive top fives and three consecutive finishes of second or better, the No. 18 is the hottest team in the series right now. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Busch was strong again last week, earning the pole and dominating the first two segments before falling victim to a mechanical failure. However, the aggressive engine package Busch and all of Joe Gibbs Racing employed won’t be active for the 600, so don’t expect a similar problem to crop up Sunday night.
Greg Biffle: Slowly but surely, Biffle is showing signs of life. The results have not necessarily reflected the No. 16’s improvement, as mechanical woes have hindered his performance, but things may turn around for Biffle Sunday. One of the stronger cars in the All-Star Race, Biffle won the third segment and made a run at winner Kasey Kahne early before settling for second.
Kahne: Speaking of Kahne, the No. 9 improved throughout the entire night en route to his surprising All-Star success. From struggling in the Sprint Showdown and making the main event via fan vote to winning the $1 million payday, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis may have found more speed that can only benefit them in the 600. Sure, it may have been difficult to pass any leader last week, and Kahne did inherit the lead on pit strategy, but his car was handling good enough to hold off the competition with older tires during that final segment.
Sam Hornish Jr.: It’s not been the best rookie season for Hornish – who must fight his No. 77 back into the Top 35 this week – but his car was extremely fast Saturday night. Hornish advanced to the All-Star Race by finishing second in the Sprint Showdown, and fought from multiple laps down to finish seventh in the main event after hitting the wall. Memorial Day weekend has been good to Hornish in open-wheel competition – he’s got an Indy 500 win under his belt – so maybe that karma will transfer over to his first 600-mile marathon in stock cars.
Matt Kenseth/Carl Edwards: Both Roush Fenway cars spent time near the front Saturday night; but while Kenseth managed to finish third, Edwards, a driver that appeared to be the man to beat in segment 2, faded to 10th. It’s been a good year for Edwards, but Kenseth has struggled, with three finishes of 38th or worse in a row before finishing sixth two weeks ago at Darlington.
AJ Allmendinger: Winning the Sprint Showdown was huge for the young driver, but crashing Elliott Sadler en route to doing so was not the best move to make. For a driver looking to gain respect from his competitors after temporarily being removed from his ride earlier in the year, you don’t want to win any sort of race with that type of blemish on your record. Allmendinger struggled in the All-Star Race, too, never cracking the top 10 in any of the four segments.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Montoya failed to make a splash Saturday night, just like he struggled at Lowe’s last season – he crashed in the fall and finished 28th in his first 600. After a second at Talladega, Montoya cracked the top 12 in points, but has since dropped to 16th on the heels of two straight disappointing finishes.
Michael Waltrip: Has struggled all season as Toyota’s program has improved. Waltrip only ran every lap in two races this season, and after being parked at Richmond, he finished 24th at Darlington, his best finish since the spring Bristol race. Couldn’t make any progress in the Sprint Showdown and was a non-factor.