In race for $1 million, every position counts
May 16, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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CONCORD, N.C. -- When a rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. won what is now called the Sprint All-Star Race in 2000, the winner's check was $500,000. What did he do with the money?
"I don't think I ever saw it," NASCAR's most popular driver said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I was racing for Daddy back then."
Indeed, Earnhardt was wheeling a Dale Earnhardt Inc., entry at the time, and the scene in Victory Lane -- a beaming father and son embracing one another -- remains more vivid than the event itself. Now driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the two-time Daytona 500 champion gets a chance at another big check in Saturday night's non-points exhibition, which is comprised primarily of race winners from the past year and pays a cool $1 million to win.
"There's a lot of money on the line this weekend, which is basically all we're going to be racing for," Earnhardt said. "But there's a lot to be learned, too, so you try to pay attention to what you're doing, what you're feeling in the car so you can use it next week."
That would be the Coca-Cola 600, the marathon event at Charlotte that stands as one of the biggest on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. With no nighttime practices scheduled for a race that begins in the late afternoon and ends under the lights, the All-Star Race might approximate the closest thing to track conditions for the following weekend. But don't let them fool you -- as much as drivers may talk about using the race as a springboard for the 600, the $1 million at stake looms as large as a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.
"The crowd gets jacked up, and of course there is nothing important on the line besides a million bucks," Kyle Busch said. "You just go out there and race as hard as you can."
How hard? With no points to worry about, past All-Star races have offered fireworks on the track to rival the pyrotechnics used in the rock-concert driver introductions. The event's early history featured Kyle Petty and Davey Allison wrecking one another at the finish, and Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace feuding over a race that paid $200,000 at the time. More recent years have seen brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch wiping one another out with aggressive racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch seething at one another in the garage area afterward.
This year's format consists of five segments, the first four 20 laps apiece. The finale is a 10-lap sprint that follows a realignment of the running order based on average finish in the opening three segments, and then a mandatory four-tire pit stop. How feisty things get at the finish may hinge on how close other drivers are to the leader in that final 10-lap dash.
"I think it depends on how within reach the million dollars really is," Earnhardt said. "If you can reach out and grab somebody, you'll get pretty aggressive for a million dollars. It just depends on whether somebody's within reach. If a guy jumps out that last 10 laps and gets a good lead, what can you do? What are you going to be able to do? If you can run a guy down, it's going to get interesting. If somebody gets within reach of somebody anytime, really in those last 10 laps, it's going to get pretty aggressive between both drivers, I think. You have to hope it's going to be close, unless I'm leading. If we're leading, I hope we're leading by a straightaway. Hope it's real boring."
Added Carl Edwards: "I have a feeling if you have a green-white-checkered restart for a million bucks, it's going to be an expensive salvage yard in Turn 1."
Next week in the 600, drivers might cede positions to one another during the early stages of the race, knowing they have to hang in there until the finish. In the shorter All-Star event, that tempered approach disappears. "In this race, everybody races each other as hard as they can for every spot the whole race. So that's a little different," said 2004 winner Matt Kenseth. "But when you get down to the end, it's like our typical races -- when you get ready for that final pit stop, you're not giving anybody a spot."
Then it comes down to hunting down the leader -- something no one was able to do last year as Jimmie Johnson won by nearly two seconds en route to his second straight and record fourth overall victory in the race. All of which makes Kenseth wonder if a shorter track might prove a better fit for the event than 1.5-mile Charlotte.
"A lot of time the leader gets out there in that short 10-lap run and it's just hard for anybody to get to them. It's just this type of racing," he said. "I think there are other tracks where it wouldn't be that way -- you get to some shorter tracks, watch the last Richmond race, or even Bristol as different speeds as the lanes are now. Martinsville. Some of those tracks, certainly you'd have potential for contact and conflicts and conflicts after the race, those type of things. At a track where you're doing 190, 200 (mph) and the aerodynamics are going on, it's less likely for that type of thing to happen."
Given that Charlotte has hosted the exhibition since 1987, that seems unlikely at best. In the meantime, the emphasis falls on drivers getting everything they can out of those first four segments, to put themselves in position to challenge the leader -- and go after $1 million in the process.
"You need to be up front at the last restart, obviously. You're not going to drive through a handful of guys. As late as it gets in the night, this track, the groove narrows up. It gets faster and faster at the bottom, and there's no time to be gained by stepping up the race track or running the high line like you might here in the afternoon. ... So you need to be in that top three, I think, to have a shot at it," Earnhardt said.
"Unless those guys kind of get bottled up banging on each another, and somebody scoots around on a restart real quick, I don't know that you're going to have much of a chance of winning the race. That doesn't sound all that great, but what it does do is make everything in the first several segments count, and it makes you hustle in all those segments to get everything you can. ... The way it's laid out actually really pushes you to work every lap, every single restart. Every opportunity you can get to seize a position, you want to do it."