RotoWire Partners

Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge Preview: Racing Under the Lights

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 2012 Sprint Cup standings, attempted to qualify for the 2013 Daytona 500 or competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event during the 2013 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 90-lap event divided into four segments of 20 laps, and a 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 2012 or 2013 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 of four tires that sets up the final 10-lap shootout. The final segment lineup is based on average finish in first four segments. 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. The winner earns $1 million and if a driver wins all five segments, that driver will win an additional $1 million.

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 eight years or eight All-Star races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Marcos Ambrose7.0290090107.8
Kyle Busch12.414363172549106.7
Jimmie Johnson6.3210140162662104.9
Matt Kenseth6.4213444461491.1
Jeff Gordon12.5220521169684.0
Carl Edwards11.3160574149683.6
Ryan Newman10.0222214563282.4
Kurt Busch11.6215302158681.9
Mark Martin11.4178352559380.6
Joey Logano5.5827019280.5
Greg Biffle12.6165345751480.5
Kevin Harvick8.5198114350579.8
Tony Stewart8.319112451678.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.6227223257976.3
Kasey Kahne13.0205362749676.1
Denny Hamlin12.516282546169.1
Martin Truex Jr.12.5761018464.6
Paul Menard16.037006858.1
Brad Keselowski11.082112016757.8
Clint Bowyer15.0760016247.3

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 Sprint Showdown win

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex won the 2007 and 2010 installments of the Sprint Showdown, so the Michael Waltrip Racing star is easily the top contender in this heat race. The No. 56 Toyota team is performing well entering this weekend, so a third win in the Showdown seems quite possible. Truex flirted with victory lane at the Fort Worth intermediate oval a few weeks ago by leading 142 of the 334 laps and finishing second, 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.

Aric Almirola -
This will be Almirola's second appearance in the Sprint Showdown. He finished a respectable seventh in this event one year ago. A lot has happened for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver since that race. Almirola enters All-Star weekend in Charlotte a career-best ninth in the championship standings. The driver of the No. 43 Ford is racing as well as he has in his Sprint Cup career and he's really shredding the intermediate and larger ovals right now. If there is any driver in this field that can challenge Truex for the win in this opening heat race, it's Almirola.

Paul Menard -
Menard has yet to win this exhibition event, despite five starts prior to this weekend. The high water mark came in 2010s Sprint Showdown where the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet piloted the car to a brilliant fourth-place finish. Menard has been improved in 2013 on the larger ovals. His 10th-place finishes at both Las Vegas and Kansas this season are good evidence of his improvement on tracks similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Menard is not the front-runner in this event, but if anyone ahead of him stumbles, the Richard Childress Racing driver could easily slip into victory lane in the Showdown.

Jamie McMurray -
The credible sleeper of this field is likely EGR driver McMurray. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet is having a good campaign in 2013 and enters this All-Star weekend ranked a three-year high of 15th in the championship driver standings. McMurray has never won this event but he's come painfully close many times. His last two outings in 2009 and 2012 netted runner-up and third-place finishes. Those brought McMurray's career totals to three Top-3 and four Top-10 finishes in the Sprint Showdown. The time may finally be right for this veteran driver to walk away with this trophy and payday.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The Earnhardt Ganassi driver enters All-Star weekend looking for a boost. A win in the Sprint Showdown would go a long way towards lifting the No. 42 Chevy team's morale. Montoya has been showing signs of heating up of late. He has Top-10 finishes in two of his last three races, and he's fresh off a rare Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. The EGR star finished fifth in last season's Sprint Showdown, so he's been close to winning in this event and very recently. Montoya has been anything but impressive on these 1.5-mile ovals in 2013, but we believe the indicators are present to suggest a fast car and good performance this weekend.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The top contender for this season's All-Star Challenge is the surging Kenseth and his hot No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team. He won this event in 2004 and has five career Top-5 finishes in the All-Star Challenge. Three of those Top 5s have come in the last five years. The JGR veteran finished an impressive third 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. Considering he has two wins already this season on ovals of this type, Kenseth is the heavy-odds favorite to win on Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion is a three-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. In this exhibition race one year ago, the Hendrick Motorsports star took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the final 10-lap shootout and rode it to his third All-Star victory. Johnson has the experience on this oval and current momentum to hook up for a fourth 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 14 laps from the pole and looked like a challenger for the win in last season's exhibition race, but he failed to track down Jimmie Johnson in the final 10-lap shootout and had to settle for fourth-place. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has made a hard bid to win this exhibition the last three years in a row, so the time may be right for Busch to capture his first win and big payday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne won this All-Star race in 2008 and he's won four victories in points-paying events at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the years. In fact, seven of his 15 career Cup victories have come on speedways of similar size and configuration as Charlotte Motor Speedway. The No. 5 Hedrick Motorsports team won the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte oval last season in a dominant performance. The duo of Kahne and his crew chief Kenny Francis has these 1.5-mile ovals figured out and it's clear to see when you look at the stat sheet. Chances are good that Kahne could walk away with his second All-Star Challenge victory this Saturday night.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards enters All-Star weekend second in the championship standings, but with only one 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 in 2011. 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 2013 championship hopes heated up. The backdrop of All-Star night and Charlotte Motor Speedway could be the setting to inspire the No. 99 Ford team into victory lane.

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion comes into All-Star weekend looking for a change of pace and a break from the pressure of defending his crown. Keselowski hasn't had an easy go of it this season, and the exhibition race at Charlotte is well-timed for this No. 2 Penske Racing team. This will be his fifth entry into the All-Star Challenge and he's still looking for that first victory in this exhibition event. Keselowski battled with the leaders, led 20 laps and finished a career-best second in last season's All-Star race. He'll look to take it up one more spot this weekend and take home the big cash haul.

Greg Biffle -
The last time the series raced on a tri-oval similar to the configuration of Charlotte, we saw Biffle peddle his way to an impressive fourth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in the NRA 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 likely the sleeper pick of this weekend's field, but he sports the stats to make a case for victory lane. 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 2011's exhibition race. Biffle led a whopping 46 laps early on before finishing a very respectable fifth.