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All-Star Challenge Preview: Let the Stars Shine

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 this event 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 2011 Sprint Cup standings, attempted to qualify for the 2012 Daytona 500 or competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event during the 2012 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 five segments of 20 laps, 20 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 2011 or 2012 season. Once the field is set, racing begins in the first segment of 20 laps. After each of the 20-lap segments pit stops are optional. However, the final 20-lap segment has a mandatory pit stop that sets up the final 10-lap shootout. The drivers that win each of the four 20-lap segments will line up in positions 1-4 entering pit road for this final pit stop before the 10-lap shootout. The race off pit road will determine the starting positions for the fifth and final segment, which is the 10-lap shootout. This new wrinkle will place more emphasis on winning the 20-lap segments to get good track position for the final restart, as well as place some major emphasis on pit strategy and pit crew performance on the final pit stop. 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 put the historical track statistics in proper perspective 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 seven years or seven All-Star races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson7.0200126146628108.9
Kyle Busch13.811363158459106.8
Matt Kenseth6.9186364057794.0
Carl Edwards9.3146574147389.6
Mark Martin10.0142352551686.1
Kurt Busch12.1178301953985.2
Jeff Gordon12.4180521160685.1
Tony Stewart7.016912445883.9
Greg Biffle11.3146345745282.7
Ryan Newman10.0187204555081.9
Joey Logano5.5827019280.5
Kevin Harvick8.9164114342576.9
Kasey Kahne13.6173262742774.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.319361450770.5
Denny Hamlin11.01408938167.3
Martin Truex Jr.12.5761018464.6
Jamie McMurray16.21322030761.5
Bobby Labonte11.51290035860.6
David Ragan8.025004753.3
Jeff Burton14.7481010952.4

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 fifth and final segment of the Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge.

The Showdown Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win of the Sprint Showdown

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
This will be Earnhardt's second straight season racing in the Sprint Showdown. The Hendrick Motorsports star ran out of eligibility last 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 impressive, Earnhardt is riding some major momentum into 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. We feel he'll do much better than his sixth-place finish in this event last year.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex won the 2007 and 2010 installments of the Sprint Showdown, so the Michael Waltrip Racing star is an apparent top contender in this heat race. The No. 56 Toyota team is performing better than it ever has in its brief Sprint Cup history, so a third win in the Showdown seems quite possible. Truex flirted with victory lane at the Kansas intermediate oval a few weeks ago by leading 173 of the 267 laps, so you have to like this surging Toyota driver for Saturday night's opening heat race. Assuming that Truex can be one of the three Showdown drivers to transfer into the All-Star Challenge, he makes a good sleeper pick in the main event of the night.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger will be starting his sixth Showdown this weekend at CMS. He raced to the win in this event in 2008 for former team Red Bull Racing. Allmendinger led 21 of the 40 laps and held off Sam Hornish Jr. to win that Sprint Showdown. He finished fourth-place for his former No. 43 team at Richard Petty Motorsports in this race one year ago. He's now driving for team owner Roger Penske and having one solid season to this point in 2012. Allmendinger should push the No. 22 Dodge to the limit this Saturday night and contend for the victory in this 40-lap heat race.

Jeff Burton -
The Richard Childress 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. 31 Chevy team's morale. Since leading 24 laps and finishing fifth in the season-opening Daytona 500, Burton has been looking for similar results ever since. His last two Showdown appearances have resulted in third- and ninth-place results. Burton has the veteran experience to rise above this mostly youth-filled field of drivers.

Joey Logano -
This will be Logano's third 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 and he also finished fifth in last season's opening heat race. He's parlayed his efforts into two berths into the All-Star Challenge and enjoyed some success there as well. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster finished a career-best third in the 2010 All-Star Challenge. Logano has a strong No. 20 Toyota at his disposal this weekend, and he should make an outside challenge to win the Sprint Showdown.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time 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 has a real knack for dominating at this particular intermediate oval. Coming off the big victory at Darlington Raceway this past weekend, the Hendrick Motorsports star is riding a tsunami of momentum into Charlotte Motor Speedway this Saturday night. Johnson has the experience on this oval and current momentum to hook up for a third All-Star trophy and million dollar payout.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has never won the All-Star Challenge but he has won several segments of the event in recent years. He led 29 laps from the pole and looked like a challenger for the win in last season's exhibition race, but he failed to track down Carl Edwards in the final 10-lap shootout and had to settle for second-place. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has made a hard bid to win this exhibition the last two years in a row, so 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 already has two victories on the young season. That makes Hamlin one of only three drivers in the series with two wins through the first 11 races. His improved performances the last few weeks are a good sign coming to CMS for All-Star weekend. Hamlin has not left his mark on the All-Star Challenge to this point in his NASCAR career, but fourth-place finishes in 2009 and 2010 along with his seventh-place finish last year 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.

Greg Biffle -
The last time the series raced on a tri-oval similar to the configuration of Charlotte, we saw Biffle dominate his way to the win at Texas Motor Speedway in the Samsung Mobile 500. That fact can not be emphasized enough going into this Saturday night's All-Star festivities. The driver of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing is leading the championship standings coming to the break. As for Biffle's past All-Star experience, it was rather unimpressive until just recently. In 2008 he led 11 laps and finished runner-up, but his most impressive performance was probably last year's exhibition race. Biffle led a whopping 46 laps early on before finishing a very respectable fifth.

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. In fact, seven of his 12 career Cup victories have come on speedways of similar size and configuration as Charlotte Motor Speedway. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team is one of the hottest in the series right now. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are riding a five-race Top 10 streak into All-Star weekend. This duo has 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 10th in the championship standings, but without a win to his credit after 11 races. That could be a motivational factor heading to Charlotte this Saturday night. Edwards won the All-Star Challenge last season. He battled with Kyle Busch in the final two stages and held off the Joe Gibbs Racing star for his first-ever win in this noteworthy exhibition race. The Roush Fenway Racing star needs a boost to get his 2012 championship hopes going. The backdrop of All-Star night and Charlotte Motor Speedway could be the setting to inspire the No. 99 Ford team into victory lane.

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. His recent string of bad luck is a bit concerning too, but we have to discount that to a large extent since this race is one-off swing for the fences kind of event. Gordon has crashed out of two of his last three 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.

Tony Stewart -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has won three of the last five Cup races on 1.5-mile ovals. That statistic certainly bodes well entering the All-Star Challenge at Charlotte. Stewart boasts 13 appearances in this colorful exhibition event, with a stellar 7.0 average finish over those starts. In those past All-Star races, the owner/driver has tallied one win (2009) and several Top-5 finishes. If the breaks go the No. 14 team's way on Saturday night, Smoke could walk away with the one million dollar prize and his second career All-Star Challenge trophy.

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 four years. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran finished a respectable sixth in last season's All-Star race, so he was racing with the leaders in this exhibition one year ago. Kenseth won his first career Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte way back in 2000, so this intermediate oval is a very special place for him. We expect to see the driver of the No. 17 Ford putting on another strong performance this Saturday night.