News & Media

First-time winners embrace All-Star event

May 18, 2012, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Ambrose, Bayne and Menard lead new faces at Cup event in Charlotte

Marcos Ambrose was answering questions in the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday when he heard the roar of race cars on the 1.5-mile track just outside.

It brought a smile to his face as his eyes flickered to television monitors in the room.

Practice for Saturday's Sprint Showdown, a preliminary to the Sprint All-Star Race, was under way. But since he's already qualified to participate in the star-studded main event, Ambrose didn't have to take his No. 9 Ford to the track just yet.

"I'm ... thinking I'm pleased I'm in the media center and not in my race car right now. It's not often you can say that, but I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to be part of the All-Star [event]. "


"I'm watching the practice here that I was in last year, thinking I'm pleased I'm in the media center and not in my race car right now," Ambrose said. "It's not often you can say that, but I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to be part of the All-Star [event].

"It's one of the biggest races you can do for money. I think if you figured it to dollars per mile it would probably be the biggest race in the world for the amount of money you can win compared to the amount of miles you compete in. So, I'm here to do it and here to be part of the action and put ourselves in contention at the end."

With a cool $1 million in prize money going to the victor of the All-Star Race, no one likes being left out. That's why this Saturday's event will be so special to the likes of Ambrose, Trevor Bayne and Paul Menard.

Those three drivers are racing in their first All-Star event -- period. Ambrose qualified by winning at Watkins Glen last August, Menard by winning at Indianapolis last July, and Bayne by winning the 2011 Daytona 500. Bayne could have driven in the event last year by virtue of his victory, but he was still recovering from an illness -- believed later to be Lyme's disease -- that sidelined him for several weeks.

Two other first-time winners last year, Regan Smith and David Ragan, are automatically qualified but will be competing in their second consecutive All-Star event. Smith won at Darlington in 2011, early enough to get him in last year's race -- while Ragan, who later won the Cup race at Daytona this past July, raced his way into last year's show by winning the Sprint Showdown. The top two drivers from the Showdown advance to the main event, as well as one driver voted in by fans.

Smith agreed with Ambrose, however, that it's much more relaxing for a driver to earn his spot in advance -- rather than having to try to do so via the uncertainty of the often-chaotic Showdown, a 40-lap race split into two 20-lap segments.

"The thing about the Showdown is you know only three cars from it are going to get in, and you kind of know who one of them is going to be," said Smith, implying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains the heavy odds-on favorite to get voted in by fans. "And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Just given the situation this year, you know that. So you're racing for one of two positions essentially -- and your odds are far greater of getting wrecked in that race than anything else.

"It's weird how that race plays out. Nobody pits, or maybe a couple of guys pit, but the cars that pit don't get back up to the front. It's just a lot more to worry about. The All-Star Race is enough to worry about in its own right. Then, if you're not qualified to get in, you've got everything else to worry about in the Showdown just to get into the All-Star Race."

Largely because of when they earned their victories on the schedule last year, Smith and Ambrose experienced widely different reactions in realizing the potentially lucrative byproduct of their wins.

"For me, it hit immediately after winning -- because Darlington was right before the All-Star Race," Smith said. "It hit me as soon as we finished the race at Darlington. I was like, 'Wow, now we're in the All-Star Race, too!'

Not Ambrose -- it hit him later. But when it finally did hit, he bulged with pride that he finds particularly satisfying this weekend.

"It was probably the offseason for me -- when you start thinking about the next year coming up and you realize you're locked into the Bud Shootout, you're locked into the All-Star event -- and you look forward to them," Ambrose said. "I've been looking forward to this event all year. It's great to be part of the big boys and part of the All-Star crew.

"We've raced our way in here on merit. We won a race in the Sprint Cup Series. We deserve to be here and we've got a chance to win the money, so I'm excited about that."

Plus, not having to deal with the Showdown has another positive side effect. The pressure to make your way into the main event and avoid the embarrassment of missing it is automatically removed.

Road to $1 million

• The Sprint All-Star Race consists of five segments, of 20, 20, 20, 20 and 10 laps.
• Twenty drivers are automatically qualified, as either race winners from 2011 and '12 or past champions of the All-Star event. Two more will transfer via the top two positions in the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap preliminary race, and another through a fan vote.
• Before the second, third and fourth segments of the All-Star Race, there is an optional pit stop in which teams may elect to pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Teams pitting will not retain their position on the track.
• Before the final segment, there is a mandatory pit stop in which teams may pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Tires are not mandatory during the stop. The winners of the first four segments will move to the front of the field prior to the final segment, and be the first cars coming to pit road.
• Prior to the final segment, cars will line up in the order in which they exited pit road.

"When you have to race in the Showdown, you're here but you know there's a real good chance you could be leaving the track while there's still a race going on," Smith said. "As a race car driver, you never want to do that. That's not what we get paid to do."