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All-Star Challenge Preview: All-Star Fireworks

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

NASCAR takes a break from the regular season schedule this weekend to hold its annual All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize the All-Star Race in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many racing pools that form specifically for this event and its unique format.

This exhibition race is divided into several racing segments which ultimately culminate in the final segment in which a winner is crowned. The racing begins with the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap sprint divided into two 20-lap segments. Three Showdown drivers will transfer into the All-Star race, two by winning the Showdown and finishing second, the third by winning an internet fan vote. To qualify for the Showdown, a driver must have finished in the Top 50 of the 2010 Sprint Cup standings, attempted to qualify for the 2011 Daytona 500 or competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event during the 2010 season. This is an exciting heat race, for the winner is usually a driver that is not normally a contender for the victory on most Sprint Cup race weekends. Next is the Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge. This is the evening's main feature. It is a 100-lap event divided into four segments of 50 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps and 10-lap shootout. The three drivers who transfer from the Showdown join the drivers who are race winners from the previous and current Sprint Cup seasons, past All-Star event champions and Sprint Cup Series champions from the past 10 years who are active drivers and have competed in at least one series event during the 2010 or 2011 season. Once the field is set, racing begins in the first segment of 50 laps. There will be a mandatory, four-tire pit stop under green in the middle of this segment. A caution flag will come out to end the first segment, and then the teams may opt for an additional pit stop. The second segment of 20 laps is continuous with a caution flag, optional pit stop at the end of this segment. The third segment of 20 laps is continuous, but it has a mandatory 10-minute break at the end where teams may make adjustments to their cars. Teams will resume their track position at the start of the fourth and final segment and then pit under green for a 4-tire pit stop. The order the teams exit pit road will be the order for the final shootout. The 10-lap shootout that follows will only count green flag laps. Caution laps will not shorten this exciting, final segment.

Since this is an exhibition racing event and a departure from NASCAR's normal racing format, we have to take the historical track statistics with a measure of skepticism this week. The stats can be skewed since most teams come to the All-Star race with "disposable cars" and are looking to hit the big payday even at the expense of wrecking the team's car. However, we can rely to the loop stats to a certain degree when evaluating our contenders this week. The loop stats in the table below cover the last six years or six All-Star races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson6.3150112140533112.8
Kyle Busch16.210154139359104.6
Matt Kenseth7.0142304048095.5
Kurt Busch12.0135301947791.2
Mark Martin8.5125352545191.0
Jeff Gordon12.0145491150986.8
Ryan Newman10.0158204546086.4
Kevin Harvick8.8130114338081.6
Tony Stewart7.51449435881.3
Joey Logano5.5827019280.5
Brian Vickers8.0443011379.6
Carl Edwards11.0129221237379.2
Greg Biffle12.3125241135276.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.717361447676.0
Kasey Kahne12.3164242736973.9
David Reutimann19.023009068.8
Denny Hamlin12.01168930367.6
Jamie McMurray16.01042023066.9
Martin Truex Jr.12.5761018464.6
Bobby Labonte11.51290035860.6

This weekend's race is unlike any of the normal Sprint Cup events, so we'll handle the prognostications a bit different as well. We'll give you our picks for who'll contend for the win in the Sprint Showdown, and then our picks for who'll contend for winning the fourth and final segment of the Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge.

The Showdown Contenders Drivers in the hunt to win the Sprint Showdown

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Amazingly as it may seem, this will be Earnhardt's first-ever entrance into the Sprint Showdown. The Hendrick Motorsports star ran out of eligibility this season for the All-Star Challenge, so he will have to race his way into the main event or win the fan vote. While his All-Star resume isn't very colorful, Earnhardt is riding some momentum to Charlotte this weekend. When we look back in ancient history we see that he won the All-Star Race as a rookie in 2000, so Earnhardt can perform on this stage.

Paul Menard
Menard will be starting his fifth Showdown this weekend at CMS. Up until last year's qualifying race he hasn't really been a factor in this event. Menard changed that with his fourth-place finish in this heat race one year ago. He's now driving for owner Richard Childress and having one impressive season to this point in 2011. Menard should push the No. 27 Chevrolet to the limit this Saturday night and contend for the victory in this 40-lap heat race.

David Ragan
The Roush Fenway Racing driver enters All-Star weekend looking for a boost. A win in the Sprint Showdown would go a long way towards lifting the No. 6 Ford team's morale. After blowing a potential win in the season opening Daytona 500, Ragan has been looking for redemption ever since. His last three Showdown appearances have resulted in third-, eighth- and sixth-place results. Ragan has been pecking around winner's circle for this race for three years running. He won the pole and led 20 laps in last season's event, so the natural progression has us thinking about checkered flags this time around.

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex won the 2007 and 2010 installments of the Sprint Showdown, so the Michael Waltrip Racing star is the apparent driver to beat in this heat race. Truex will have the assistance of veteran crew chief Pat Tryson once again for this race, so a third win in the Showdown seems quite likely. Tryson has won as a crew chief on several intermediate ovals through the years with multiple drivers, so you have to like this duo for Saturday night's opening race.

Joey Logano
This will be Logano's second Sprint Showdown. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has made his mark at Charlotte on All-Star weekend despite the lack of starts. Logano finished a highly respectable fifth as a rookie in 2009's Showdown. He finished eighth that same year in the All-Star Challenge. In last year's All-Star race, Logano qualified on the outside of row 1 and finished third after 100 laps of racing on this grand stage. Logano should make a stiff challenge for the win in this season's Showdown.

The All-Star Race Contenders Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is a two-time All-Star race winner, and he's a six-time winner of points-paying events at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He's led 106 laps in just his last two All-Star outings alone, and has a real knack for dominating at this intermediate oval. Johnson has struggled a little bit since his victory at Talladega a few weeks ago, but this special event on this big stage is a great set up for the Hendrick Motorsports star to steal the spot light.

Kyle Busch
Busch has never won the All-Star Challenge but he has won several segments of the event in recent years. He led 23 laps and looked like a challenger for the win in last season's exhibition race, but a crash with two laps to go took him out of the running. Considering how well the Joe Gibbs Racing star is performing entering this weekend, the time may be right for Busch to capture his first win and big payday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has yet to visit victory lane this season, but that shouldn't affect your opinion of Hamlin this weekend. His improved performances the last couple weeks are a good sign coming to CMS. Hamlin has not left his mark on the All-Star Challenge to this point in his NASCAR career, but fourth-place finishes in each of the last two years make a clear statement. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has been very close to winning the trophy, and he could make that push on Saturday night to close the deal.

Kurt Busch
Up until last season, Busch had never won at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Penske Racing star came into Concord, North Carolina last year and won not on the All-Star Challenge, but also the Coca-Cola 600 the following weekend. While we don't expect the No. 22 team to break out the brooms again this year, it would be foolhardy to discount this team on All-Star weekend. Busch won two segments of last year's exhibition race, and the majority of his success has come on intermediate ovals the last couple years.

Kasey Kahne
Kahne won this All-Star Race in 2008 and he's won three victories in points-paying events at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the years. No team is hotter than the Red Bull Racing No. 4 team right now. He and crew chief Kenny Francis have these 1.5-mile ovals figured out and considering the huge wave of momentum this team is riding into Charlotte, there's a good chance Kahne could walk away with his second All-Star victory.

Carl Edwards
Edwards enters All-Star weekend as the leader in the championship standings, but without a win to his credit after 11 races. That could be a motivational factor heading to Charlotte. Edwards has cracked the Top 5 twice in prior exhibition races, but he's yet to really challenge for the win. Considering how well Edwards is racing this season, he's in the running for the win almost every weekend. The timing could be right for the Roush Fenway Racing star to make his mark on the All-Star Challenge.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon is a three-time winner of NASCAR's All-Star event. 2001 was the last time he won this exhibition race, so you can understand our guarded optimism for the racing icon this weekend. Gordon has crashed out of his last two All-Star Challenges, so there is certainly a fierce determination to succeed this time around. The Hendrick Motorsports star owns five career points-paying victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so he can't be taken lightly.

Kevin Harvick
The winner of the 2007 All-Star Race will be looking for his second crown in this event on Saturday night. The way the No. 29 team has raced at times this season, it's entirely possible. Harvick finished a respectable sixth in this event one year ago, but has yet to really have an impact since his victory four years ago. We expect to see the Richard Childress Racing veteran mixing it up with the leaders in this exciting race at the Charlotte oval.

Matt Kenseth
The sneakiest sleeper in the field this Saturday night is likely Kenseth. He won this event in 2004 and has four career Top-5 finishes in the All-Star Challenge. Two of those Top 5's have come in the last three years. Kenseth won his first career Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte way back in 2000, so this intermediate oval is a very special venue for him. We expect to see the driver of the No. 17 Ford putting on another strong performance this Saturday night.
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