NASCAR: Sprint All-Star race – May 16

The All-Star Sprint is a strange affair in the Sprint Cup season. For one thing, it’s not part of the Sprint Cup proper as no Cup points are awarded. But in case you think this is an exhibition race of no importance, think again: not only does it have a big reputation in and of itself, and not only does it give all drivers invaluable track time at Lowes Motor Speedway ahead of next week’s Sprint Cup event at the same venue next weekend. No, the main think is the one million dollar prize for the winner.

I think you could safely assume that everyone was properly motivated.

Sprint Showdown

But before the All-Star Sprint itself, there’s the warm-up event over two 20-lap stints with a competition caution between. The winner and runner-up of this qualifying race get into the 21-car line-up for the All-Star event.

After qualifying for the Showdown was rained off, the running order was set by a draw and it was David Stremme who led the Sprint Showdown to the green flag, but a caution was quickly out for a spin by Tony Raines. Brian Vickers and Joey Logano made contact after the restart which left Vickers with a left front tyre rub and worse for wear, but amazingly no caution until Vickers’ tyre finally blew out several laps after the actual contact, resulting in extensive bodywork damage for the number 83 and a lot of debris to clean up.

That meant very few green flag laps in the first half of the showdown, and the relative lack of tyre wear meant that coming in for a mid-race pit stop under the scheduled competition yellow was less of a concern than usual. Stremme still had the lead ahead of Sam Hornish Jr., Martin Truex, Dave Blaney, Juan Montoya and David Reutimann, and all of the top six stayed out on track rather than pit but almost everyone behind dutifully came in for fresh rubber. Would it pay off? Only time would tell.

The second 20-lap stint got underway with Stremme initially pulling out a big lead over the battling Truex and Hornish, with Jamie McMurray also coming up the ranks fast having started from as far back as 28th. But Hornish won that one and by the time the next yellow came out on lap 25 (for Elliot Sadler hitting the wall) Stremme’s lead had disappeared and he’d been battling side-by-side with the 77 for the lead.

At the restart, Hornish finally took the lead and McMurray took the battle to Stremme for 2nd place. Stremme was starting to fade and struggling high up the track, looking like a busted flush; you could say that this proved he should have taken fresh tyres at mid-race after all, but the other cars that pitted were bottled up by Truex and Reutimann battling side-by-side for 4th and were consequently holding back the rest of the field from competing for the top spots.

Hornish’s pace in this longest stint of the Showdown was hugely impressive, and he built up over 2s gap over McMurray in 2nd. While McMurray was fading as the stint wore on, Stremme was by now too far back to challenge for the runners-up spot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
FIN ST CAR DRIVER            MAKE         STATUS
1   6  77  Sam Hornish Jr.   Dodge        Running
2   28 26  Jamie McMurray    Ford         Running
3   1  12  David Stremme     Dodge        Running
4   11 00  David Reutimann   Toyota       Running
5   17 20  Joey Logano *     Toyota       Running
6   4  1   Martin Truex Jr.  Chevrolet    Running
7   8  44  A.J. Allmendinger Dodge        Running
8   5  6   David Ragan       Ford         Running
9   30 7   Robby Gordon      Toyota       Running
10  12 47  Marcos Ambrose    Toyota       Running
11  2  66  Dave Blaney       Toyota       Running
12  9  42  Juan Montoya      Chevrolet    Running
13  21 07  Casey Mears       Chevrolet    Running
14  26 55  Michael Waltrip   Toyota       Running
15  20 171 David Gilliland   Chevrolet    Running
16  14 21  Bill Elliott      Ford         Running
17  22 98  Paul Menard       Ford         Running
18  32 43  Reed Sorenson     Dodge        Running
19  18 82  Scott Speed *     Toyota       Running
20  19 187 Joe Nemechek      Toyota       Running
21  7  113 Max Papis *       Toyota       Running
22  31 41  J.J. Yeley        Toyota       Running
23  13 51  Dexter Bean*      Dodge        Running
24  33 34  Tony Raines       Chevrolet    Running
25  3  36  Scott Riggs       Toyota       Running
26  10 37  Mike Wallace      Chevrolet    Running
27  24 64  Todd Bodine       Toyota       Running
28  15 175 Derrike Cope      Dodge        Running
29  23 73  Mike Garvey       Dodge        Running
30  27 106 David Starr       Dodge        Running
31  16 157 Norm Benning      Chevrolet    Running
32  35 127 Kirk Shelmerdine  Toyota       Running
33  25 19  Elliott Sadler    Dodge        15 laps down in pit
34  29 83  Brian Vickers     Toyota       29 laps down in pit
35  34 146 Carl Long         Dodge        37 laps down - out 

* = Rookie

All-Star Sprint

Sam Hornish Jr. and Jamie McMurray duly took to the grid for the All-Star Sprint, along with the winner of the fan vote – the superstar rookie, 18-year-old Joey Logano. But getting in via the fan vote is no sop: Kasey Kahne showed that last year when he got into the All-Star on the fan vote and then won the whole shooting match!

The format of the All-Star Sprint is ever-changing, and this year comprised of four segments of 50 (with a 4-tyre stop midway), 20, 20 and finally a 10 green flag lap shoot out to the finish. It’ll doubtless be different again next year so no one gets too hung up about the details; and just as important as the race format is that it’s run under the lights at night.

At the start, Jimmie Johnson led from pole and pulled out a huge lead while Kurt Busch won a battle with Matt Kenseth to ease into a comfortable second. Kyle Busch seemed to be everywhere on the track as he pushed for the front from a start in 13th, while Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car initially looked strong but then quickly started to fade and fall back down the order,

Kurt lost second to Jeff Gordon and then won it back a few laps later as Kyle Busch eased into 4th and closed on them both. Everyone reached the halfway distance of the first 50-lap segment without incident, and duly filed into the pits for their four-tyre stops. Kyle Busch had the worst stop, overrunning the pit box and having to get pushed back before the tyre change could commence dropping him down two spots.

Jimmie Johnson continued to lead ahead of the heated Kurt Busch/Jeff Gordon battle for second. Kyle had recovered one of his lost positions to take up 5th behind Mark Martin, while further back Ryan Newman hit troubles with sparks flying from under the car from lap 38 onwards but was determined to hang out until the end of the first segment despite dropping off the lead lap. Only some generosity from Johnson helped Newman avoid going further down, and when the competition yellow came out on lap 50 Newman duly got the free pass and got back on the lead lap – all thanks to Johnson.

So at the halfway mark, Johnson led Kurt, Gordon, Martin and Kyle as they streamed into the pits for new tyres. Now it was a gamble on two tyres or four, and what adjustments to make – Jimmie Johnson, despite leading every lap so far, seemed to be fading toward the end and some handling changes were needed which dropped him to 5th at the restart behind Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Sam Hornish Jr.

Tony Stewart pulled off a eye-catching near-pass-in-the-grass on Joey Logano on his way to cracking the top ten, while up front Matt Kenseth had caught Kyle Busch and was getting right alongside to challenge for the lead as the number 18 complained of getting too tight and needing a wedge adjustment. Once again, the segment ran full-length untroubled by cautions.

Kyle Busch staged a major fake-out at the pit-stops, appearing to come into the pits but swerving back onto the track at the last second, opting to prize track position over fresh rubber. Matt Kenseth also stayed out; Johnson however needed the pit time and came in from third for adjustments as well as tyres, dropping down to 12th position as a result.

With thirty laps to go, the third segment was set to be the truly crucial one of the evening. Kyle and Kenseth led Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch at the green flag. We didn’t get very far this time however as the first unscheduled yellow came out a lap later. First, Jimmie Johnson jumped up and kissed the wall hard but without bringing out a caution; and then half a lap later Sam Hornish got loose and lost the back end, heading up to contact with the wall and collecting Greg Biffle on the way. Biffle came out of it with a heavier impact and a lot more damage than the 77 for bring in the wrong place at the wrong time, putting him into the garage for the rest of the night.

Mark Martin got very loose at the restart and was lucky to drop only to 7th, and then got into the wall a few laps later to lose still more positions. Meanwhile Johnson eased back into the top five no worse for his contact with the wall a few laps earlier. Jeff Burton also made contact with the wall mid-segment and headed to the garage with engine problems shortly afterwards.

The fastest man on track for the first half of the third segment was Kyle Busch but then on lap 80 Kyle suddenly lost pace and Jeff Gordon blasted past him for the first green flag lead change of the event. Kyle also lost second to Matt Kenseth and it seemed that the tyres were simply losing grip and that the pit stop gambit had not worked. He would have been mighty relieved to see the final competition yellow of the evening to come out shortly thereafter.

The segment finished with Gordon leading Kenseth, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray rounding out the top ten, with two cars retired and everyone else still on the lead lap.

This time everyone hit the pits: the rules for this stop were completely different, with a set time for everyone to come in and get their cars worked on, and everyone exiting the pits in the same order in which they entered before racing resumed. Just as well for Kyle Busch, who was blocked from entering his pit box by the 48 of Jimmie Johnson coming in to the pit box in front. Kyle ended up having to rely on his pit crew pushing him back into position.

So now it was the ten lap shootout to decide a million dollars, and pretty much anyone in the top ten was still more than in with a shot.

At the first green flag, Denny Hamlin touched the back of Jimmie Johnson and spun him around – fortunately no one hit Johnson and under the weird All-Star rules, since there was no green flag lap it effectively didn’t count and everything was reset as it was before. Which meant that Kyle Busch’s excellent move around the outside of Matt Kenseth to go three-wide at the green flag and blast past into second didn’t count either.

So back as you were, and another green flag attempt: this time Kenseth had the outside covered and wasn’t about to allow Kyle to repeat his antics. So Kyle ran right through the middle of Kenseth and Gordon to take the lead, a breathtaking move that should never have worked but did, beautifully. Kenseth fell away, but Busch’s lead was short-lived as Jeff Gordon got up to speed and was right alongside the 18. And then from behind, Ryan Newman suddenly appeared behind Busch and puhed “Wild Thing” past Gordon and back into the lead.

But Newman’s move wasn’t altruistic, and once they passed Gordon Newman switched to the outside and powered past Busch. Nor was Gordon quote done either, and he recovered momentum to start passing on the inside. Kyle was the meat in the sandwich and when Newman and Gordon squeezed then an accident was inevitable” Kyle got pretty scrunched but he kept it going forward, while Gordon was less successful and spun on the inside, first into the infield and then heading up to hit the wall. The car was badly damaged as it came to a halt, and the engine was unloading fluids down the circuit incline so that a yellow came out for a length clear-up.

That constituted three full green flag laps; the running order was once again reset to the last completed lap before any cautions, and the order was: Kyle Busch, Newman, Kenseth, Stewart, and Kurt Busch. Kyle initially got a good restart, but the damage from the collision with Newman and Gordon quickly told and he fell back through the field, allowing Kenseth and Tony Stewart to pass him before the next and final yellow of the night came out for debris on the track.

Now Kenseth led the field to the restart green flag with five to go, and with Kyle out of the picture it became a face-off between him and Tony Stewart. Stewart had the best car of the night for the inside line, able to stay low and still put the power on through the turns, and while Kenseth did all he could to stop Stewart getting past, eventually Stewart just proved too strong and blew past him on the inside. After that there was nothing Kenseth could do except see a million dollars fly off into the distance.

Tony Stewart, in his first season as driver-owner, took the chequered flag – and a huge cash boost.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
FIN CAR DRIVER             MAKE         LAPS STATUS
1   14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet    100  Running
2   17  Matt Kenseth       Ford         100  Running
3   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge        100  Running
4   11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota       100  Running
5   99  Carl Edwards       Ford         100  Running
6   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet    100  Running
7   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota       100  Running
8   20  Joey Logano *      Toyota       100  Running
9   26  Jamie McMurray     Ford         100  Running
10  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet    100  Running
11  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford         100  Running
12  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet    100  Running
13  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet    100  Running
14  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge        100  Running
15  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet    100  Running
16  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge        100  Running
17  09  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet    100  Running
18  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet    93   Accident
19  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet    92   Accident
20  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet    85   Accident
21  16  Greg Biffle        Ford         71   Accident
* Denotes Rookie 
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