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Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

This Saturday night the Sprint Cup schedule makes one of its favorites stops of the season when it rolls into Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first of two consecutive weekends of racing. First up will be the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge. Even though it is a Cup race, there is nothing about it that resembles what we normally see for 36 weekends on the schedule.

This will be the 28th running of the All-Star Challenge and once again the easiest way into the starting field is by being a past winner. This Saturday night’s version of the non-points race will feature a 23-car field with 19 of those drivers gaining their entry by winning a Cup race in either 2011 or 2012.

That list of drivers securing their spot by being a recent winner in the sport includes almost all of the biggest names in the sport, but this year there are five drivers that are in the field after winning their first and only Cup race in 2011. Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose will take the green flag as a reward for making their first-ever trip to a Sprint Cup victory lane.

The next way to gain entry into the event is by being a winner of the All- Star Challenge within the past 10 years. Only Mark Martin meets that requirement as he won the event in 2005 thus becoming the 20th driver guaranteed a starting spot in the race.

The drivers in remaining three spots that will be up for grabs on Saturday will not be known until right before the start of the race. The Sprint Showdown race is held just prior to the running of the All-Star Challenge and both the winner and the runner-up of that event move into the night’s featured race as will as one more driver that will gain his entry by being selected as the fan favorite in a vote that is presently being conducted by Sprint.

Filling the starting grid for the race isn’t the only difference between the All- Star Challenge and one of the 36 points races on the schedule. The format of the event doesn’t remotely resemble one of those races as Saturday night’s format is all about 90 laps of racing that will produce up to four different winners going into the final 10 laps of the night.

This year’s format has been changed to include five segments with the first four consisting of 20 laps each. Winning one of these segments becomes very important as being one of the four winners heading into the final 10-lap segment guarantees you one of the first four spots in the field as the cars come on to pit road for a mandatory pit stop between the fourth and fifth segment that consists of the final 10 laps.

The starting order for the last segment will be set by the pit performance between these two segments. This mandatory pit stops now puts the pressure on the individual teams to turn in their best performance of the night as 10 laps of racing is not a lot of time to make up positions after a bad pit stop.

All together even though the race consists of only 90 laps of racing, fans will be guaranteed five sprints to the finish but it’s that checkered flag after the final 10 lap segment that will have everyone on their feet as that winner will take home a check worth a million dollars. That kind of money along with not having to worry about points seems to always push drivers to take chances that they wouldn’t normally do when those precious Sprint Cup points are on the line.

It may be the best night of racing on the schedule as the sport seems to let its hair down so to speak and produces a great night of racing. It is not only great for the fans, but it’s the one race that you will actually see drivers smile as they enjoy racing without the pressure of collecting points. It’s a magical night that begins with driver and crew introductions that you don’t see at any other track and ends with plenty of fireworks and a driver holding a million dollar check. If we are lucky, we may just see some fireworks on the track long before the checkered flag waves.

Race Preview
Event: NASCAR Sprint Cup
All-Star Challenge
Track: Charlotte Motor
Speedway (1.5-mile quadoval, 24 degrees of banking
in the turns)
Date: May 19, 9 p.m. (Sprint
Showdown at 7:30 p.m.)
TV: Speed
Radio: PRN
Defending Champion: Carl

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