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Sprint Cup All-Star Race Preview: A Night for the Stars to 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 that ultimately culminate in the final segment in which a winner is crowned. The racing begins Friday night 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 2013 Sprint Cup standings, attempted to qualify for the 2014 Daytona 500 or competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event during the 2014 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. On Saturday night is the Sprint Cup All-Star Race. This is the weekend'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 2013 or 2014 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 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 nine years or nine All-Star races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch11.316580201639110.3
Jimmie Johnson5.7248143172735106.3
Matt Kenseth6.7253444469288.3
Joey Logano4.31088028287.3
Kurt Busch10.9246485067686.4
Carl Edwards11.1178594158682.8
Jeff Gordon12.4258531177681.6
Kasey Kahne12.0243433858679.7
Brian Vickers8.0443011379.6
Ryan Newman10.3266214571079.1
Greg Biffle12.9183345758178.4
Kevin Harvick8.8228124356977.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.3269223266776.9
Tony Stewart8.921012456075.1
Marcos Ambrose12.0350010572.3
Denny Hamlin11.619182555171.4
Martin Truex Jr.12.5761018464.6
A.J. Allmendinger14.048208964.4
Jamie McMurray14.81742039163.5
Paul Menard16.037006858.1

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 Race.

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

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is easily the biggest and most recognizable name in this field. A winless 2013 season has put the No. 15 Toyota squarely atop the entry list for this weekend's Showdown. Bowyer has three prior starts in this exhibition event, but the finishes have not been anything to write home about. He does have a top finish of sixth-place in the 2007 version of this event. Bowyer is a one-time winner at the Charlotte oval (October 2012) so he does know what it takes to win here. However, the No. 15 team's lack of performance to this point in the season keeps him from being the heavy odds favorite.

Aric Almirola -
This will be Almirola's third appearance in the Sprint Showdown. He finished a respectable seventh in his first two performances in this event. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is fresh off an impressive eighth-place finish at the similar intermediate oval in Kansas this past weekend. That was his third Top10 of the 2014 season. Almirola has one career pole position and a pair of Top-20 finishes in his four points paying starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. If there's a sleeper in the field to pick on, Almirola is it.

Paul Menard -
Menard has yet to win this exhibition event, despite six starts prior to this weekend. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has earned a pair of fourth-place finishes in the Open in two of his last three starts. Menard has been strong in 2014 on the larger ovals. His third-place finish at Las Vegas and his ninth-place finish at Texas earlier this season are solid 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.

Kyle Larson -
The credible favorite of the field is the surprising rookie Larson. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is off to a fantastic start to his rookie season. He has five Top-10 finishes in the first 11 races of this season and comes to the All-Star break a surprising 13th in the overall driver standings. This will be Larson's first appearance in the Sprint Showdown, so obviously nerves and the jitters will be running high. However, when you look at the comparative youth and inexperience of this 23-driver field, Larson is as good a bet to win as any. The Chip Ganassi Racing youngster's fifth-place qualifying spot and 12th-place finish at Kansas this past weekend are good indicators of his potential this Friday night.

Danica Patrick -
Coming off the best performance of her Sprint Cup Series career, Patrick comes to Charlotte and All-Star weekend at a great time. The Stewart Haas Racing driver scored the second Top-10 finish of her career with a strong seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway. This week's festivities in Charlotte will be held at a similar 1.5-mile tri-oval. Her debut in this event one year ago led to a respectable ninth-place finish and winning the fan vote to pass her through to the field of the All-Star Challenge. This time around Patrick may just surprise everyone and race her way into the big show.

Austin Dillon -
The deep sleeper of the field is RCR rookie Dillon and his No. 3 Chevy team. After a Top-10 finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, things have been a bit up-and-down for the rookie driver. Dillon has managed to maintain Top 15 to Top 20 finishing performances most weeks, but he's generally been upstaged by fellow rookie Kyle Larson. In so far as the intermediate ovals are concerned, Dillon picked up Top-20 finishes at both Las Vegas and Kansas recently. It would be a bit of a stretch, but there are at least reasonable odds that Dillon could upset this "equal" field of drivers.

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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick enters All-Star weekend 15th in the championship standings, but with two victories to his credit after 11 races. That could be a motivational factor heading to Charlotte this Saturday night. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is fresh off a dominant performance at Kansas Speedway, a similar intermediate oval, where he finished runner-up to Jeff Gordon. Harvick is a one-time winner of the All-Star Race, in 2007, and he also finished runner-up in the 2006 installment of this exhibition race. It's been a long while between drinks, but Harvick may visit the fountain of victory lane this Saturday night.

Joey Logano -
The rising star of the Sprint Cup Series ranks can hardly wait to race this Saturday night at Charlotte. Logano is already a two-time winner in 2014, and he's coming off a strong Top-5 performance at Kansas Speedway last weekend. The Penske Racing driver finished runner-up in this exhibition race one year ago to Jimmie Johnson, and that was his second Top 5 in his three career starts in the All-Star Race. When the lights flip on each season for this event in Charlotte, the best tends to come out in Logano. We're certain that an all-out effort will be turned in to get Logano that million dollar purse and his first victory in this prestigious event.

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is a three-time winner of this event ('95, '97 and '01) and while those victories are practically ancient history there's no reason to believe some of that old magic can take hold of the 42-year-old driver this weekend. Gordon is fresh off a career-boosting victory at Kansas Speedway and he's leading the driver standings for the first time in a very long time coming into the All-Star break. Whatever this driver and the No. 24 team have discovered, it's working and Gordon is looking like he did in his twenties behind the wheel. Gordon hasn't cracked the Top 5 in the All-Star Race since 2006, so imagine the surprise of the NASCAR world if the No. 24 Chevrolet pulls into victory lane this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion is a four-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. Johnson has won the last two installments of this event, so even though the No. 48 team is not operating at top speed right now, Johnson has to be seen as the driver to beat this Saturday night. In this race one year ago he took the lead after the final pit stop and led the final 10-lap shootout, keeping Joey Logano at bay, to pick up his fourth victory in this prestigious event.

Matt Kenseth -
The winless season thus far has been a bit perplexing for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team. Kenseth is clearly at some mechanical or horsepower disadvantage 11 races in the 2014 campaign. We still must give him his due respect in this race. Kenseth is a one-time All-Star Race winner and he is currently second among active drivers with 10 Top-10 finishes in this exhibition event. He's riding an amazing seven-race Top-10 streak in this race into Saturday's 90-lap shootout. If the breaks fall Kenseth's way he could get the win and boost to get his season going in the right direction.

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 16 career Cup victories have come on speedways of similar size and configuration as Charlotte Motor Speedway. The No. 5 Hedrick Motorsports team led 11 laps and finished fourth in this exhibition event one year ago. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have something figured out about this oval that most teams don't know. As always, whenever he takes to this oval you have to give him a slugger's chance at the victory. Kahne's 22 laps led and third-place finish at the similar oval in Kansas this past weekend only bolsters our confidence in this driver and team.

Brad Keselowski -
The winner of our last race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is due some close examination before this All-Star Race. Keselowski made a late charge in last October's Bank of America 500 to pass and beat Kasey Kahne at this intermediate oval. The Penske Racing star has been a top performer oh the 1.5-mile tracks this season, and he has a win earlier this year at Las Vegas to prove it. Keselowski owns a pair of runner-up finishes in this exhibition event in 2011 and 2012, so he knows what it is to race up front and taste a near-brush with that million dollar purse. We should see a motivated driver and No. 2 Ford team this weekend in one of NASCAR's most prestigious prime-time events.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has never won the All-Star Race but he has won several segments of the event in recent years. He has three pole positions and a whopping 201 laps led in his eight-race history of this exhibition. While the No. 18 Toyota team is not operating at top level on these style ovals entering this weekend, we have to give Busch his due respect in this 90-lap race. Busch has finishes of second-, fourth- and third-place in his last three All-Star starts. You can't take that level of performance lightly. While he's not likely to break though for that first victory in this event this weekend, he's just good and wildcard enough to keep on your fantasy racing radar screen for this event's pools.