It's All-Star week!
The stars of stock car racing shine brightest under the lights of this weekend's Sprint All-Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Saturday night shootout marks the 28th-annual running of the fastest exhibition in all of sports. Unlike other sports, where the venue for the All-Star event changes every year, Charlotte has hosted the race for all but one of the previous 27 incarnations. Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted the 1986 race, and a meager crowd saw Georgia legend Bill Elliott win the event. The poor crowd (hey, I woulda been there, but I was born seven months later, so...) sent the race back to the hub of NASCAR, and it has remained there ever since.
A common annual venue is not the only thing that sets NASCAR's All-Star race aside from other sports' big night. Whereas other leagues - I'm assuming, seeing as I only follow NASCAR and Major League Baseball - have fans vote on their game's participants, the Sprint All-Star Race is an exclusive, invitation only event. To make the field, one must have won a race during either the 2011 season or the opening 11 weeks of 2012, have claimed a Sprint All-Star race victory or Sprint Cup title in the past decade, be one of the top-two finishing drivers in the Sprint Showdown - a preliminary featuring all drivers in the top-50 in 2011 Sprint Cup points and those who've run a 2012 race who aren't already All-Stars - or win the Sprint Fan Vote (which seams all but certain to go to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the second-consecutive year).
This year's All-Star race differs from past events in that there will be five segments, more than ever. The first four segments, all 20 laps in length, will set the top-four starting positions for the final 10-lap dash for a $1 million payday. The winner from each segment will line up in positions 1-4, ahead of the rest of the field as they run at the conclusion of segment four. The field - or what is left of it, as the race often lends itself to carnage - will hit pit road for a mandatory stop before that last 10-lap run.
Carl Edwards won last year's Sprint All-Star race - and destroyed the nose of his No. 99 Ford in the front-stretch grass afterwards - and headlines the grid of drivers already guaranteed a starting spot in the race. Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart won the 2009 event and figures to contend again this year. Jeff Gordon is in the midst of a career-worst season, but he and the late Dale Earnhardt are the only drivers with three-career wins in the race. A record-fourth could jump start his season as he tries to claw his way back into Chase contention.
Four drivers who were not qualified for last year's race made themselves eligible later on in 2011. Unadilla's David Ragan won the Sprint Showdown to transfer into the starting field, but he is already locked in this year courtesy of his win at Daytona in July. Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard also recorded their first-career wins later in the year. Brad Keselowski, who finished second in the Showdown to transfer along with Ragan, won two weeks later in Kansas and has a total of five victories - including two this season - since last year's All-Star event. Only Stewart with seven wins has more in that span.
The Showdown's entry list, meanwhile, includes 22 drivers. Earnhardt Jr. of course is the headliner and will almost without question transfer from the event, either via a top-two finish or the Fan Vote. Martin Truex Jr., who is off to a hot start in 2012 and seems to be a victory waiting to happen, will be a definite factor in the 30-lapper as he seeks to transfer into the All-Star race for the third time since 2007. A.J. Allmendinger, the 2008 Showdown winner, will likely be another contender.
All told, Saturday will be a packed, thrilling evening of on-track action that will only serve to further solidify the NASCAR Sprint All-Star race as the most exciting All-Star night in all of sports.