Sprint Cup championship leader Carl Edwards underlined just how strong and on-form he is right now by beating all of the very best drivers in NASCAR's top series in the exhibition All-Star event.
Oh, and he also pocketed a cool million dollars for his evening's work when he held off Kyle Busch in the #18 to the chequered flag.
The All-Star event, and the associated Sprint Showdown, are not part of the regular Sprint Cup season and operate to a highly idiosyncratic format that takes almost as long to understand and explain as the event itself does to run - it doesn't help that the organisers of the event at Charlotte Motor Speedway just love to tinker with it every now and then, too.The line-up
To start with, not all of the regular Sprint Cup drivers are eligible to even run in the All-Star event.
The line-up is made up of drivers who have won a Sprint Cup race in 2010 or so far this season, together with all Sprint Cup champions from the last decade (a lower number than usual, thanks to the recent domination by Jimmie Johnson) and all the All-Star winners over the same period.
Taken together that meant the starting line-up consisted of 18 drivers in total: Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Juan Montoya, Ryan Newman, David Reutimann, Regan Smith and Tony Stewart.
The line-up would normally have included a 19th driver - Trevor Bayne became eligible for the race thanks to his win at the Daytona 500. However, the Roush Fenway team announced on Thursday that they were withdrawing Bayne from all racing activity this weekend because of his ongoing health issues.
There are three additional spots available: one is for the winner of an "X-Factor"-style fan vote, and with Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer automatically included in the All-Star line-up it was a foregone conclusion that Junior would be the overwhelming choice here - reportedly receiving 2.4 million votes.
"I thank not only my fans, but all the fans that voted," said Dale after the vote winner was announced. "I know my fans worked really hard. I kept up on the Internet about the temperature they had about it. They were committed pretty hard. So I appreciate the help."
He insisted that he hadn't taken it for granted. "Anytime there's a contest, they don't announce the winner, there's no guarantees ... I didn't take it for granted. I knew my fans were working really hard. They've done a great job over the last several years of locking up the most popular driver award. All the credit goes to them."
The final two spots go to the drivers who come first and second in the night's other race, the Sprint Showdown, which is open to all the regular Sprint Cup drivers who have not already qualified for the All-Star event.Sprint Showdown
By Sprint Cup endurance race standards, the Showdown's 40-lap race distance on the 1.5 mile oval at Charlotte barely registers. The race is split into two 20-lap segments, with a caution at the midpoint - drivers can choose whether or not to pit, while from this point on any laps run under caution are not included in the race distance; effectively, it's red flag conditions.
David Ragan and AJ Allmendinger had qualified on the front row of the grid for the Showdown and led the field away at the green shortly after 7.30pm in the evening on Saturday, with Joey Logano having to give up ninth sport to start from the back after an engine change.
There was an early caution on lap 3 when Landon Cassill had his left-rear tyre explode sending him spinning out of control into the path of Derrike Cope, who was unable to avoid broadsiding the #09 in the driver-side in a scary-looking moment. Both drivers were unharmed; Boris Said came into the pits under the ensuing caution and retired because of unrelated mechanical problems.
At the restart, Ragan retained the lead but Allmendinger was displaced by Paul Menard, while further back Joey Logano was rebounding from his engine change penalty and was already back up to seventh before the end of the first segment after 20 laps.
During the intermission, A.J. Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. opted to pit form third and fourth positions, but David Ragan, Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Stremme and Casey Mears all opted to stay out, and when the race resumed it was Keselowski who put this tactic to the best use by passing Ragan for the lead on the inside at the restart. Any chance that Earnhardt Jr might not need the fan vote to get into the All-Star soon faded as he started to fall back down the running order.
A third caution came out on lap 27 when David Stremme hit the wall, allowing Earnhardt Jr. to hit pit road for an adjustment to see if that would help stop him falling off the pace. It did, but he would only be able to improve to sixth place before the end of the Showdown.
The green flag came out, but almost immediately there was a new caution after lots of bumping through the field sent cars spinning. Among those to have to pit now were Paul Menard (with bodywork damage rubbing his tyres after contact with Joey Logano) and Brian Vickers for new tyres after flat-spotting his old set following contact with Jeff Burton.
The race resumed - still technically on lap 28 thanks to the Showdown rules of 'no caution laps count'; Keselowski led Ragan and Allmendinger, while Menard got into the back of Martin Truex Jr. sending them both up the track but not bringing out a caution this time. That cleared the way for Marcos Ambrose to try to wrestle a position from Allmendinger, which soon became a three-way battle for third with Joey Logano.
But at the front, Keselowski and Ragan were battling for the lead and between them had both entry wild cards for the All-Star. They managed not to wipe each other out, and with two laps to go Ragan finally got past Keselowski on the inside for the lead and held it to the chequered flag.Sprint All-Star Race
With the 18 driver line-up now augmented with David Ragan, Brian Keselowski and fan vote winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was time for the main event of the evening.
The format of the All-Star is even more convoluted than anything that's proceeded it. It commenced with a 50-lap segment 1 during which time the teams are obliged to make one four-tyre green-flag pit stop.
After a caution break - during which drivers can pit if they wish to - a 20-lap segment 2 is followed by another caution and another chance for a pit stop if teams wish, and then a 20-lap segment 3 which concludes with all cars coming into pit lane for a 10 minute rest break.
Before the final segment, the drivers return to the track in the same order as they were running, do one lap - and then come in for a de facto
pit stop challenge, with everyone carrying out a four-tyre pit stop. The order off pit road determines the starting order for segment 4, during which only green flag laps count and the winner receives a $1 million prize.
Got that? Complicated enough? Don't worry if it isn't - they'll come up with some way of making it more devilishly devious and needlessly intricate next year!
Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer had qualified on the front row with Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards made up the second row behind them. Ragan, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. all started from the back of the pack as the race went green for the first time at 9.50pm for the first of the 100 laps of racing.
Clint Bowyer had a terrible start and quickly exited the front spots, leaving Kyle susceptible to a successful strike for the lead by Greg Biffle. Kyle also picked up some debris on his front grille, and helped himself to the rear of Biffle's #16 to try and clear it off.
Jeff Gordon had some interesting battles with first Jamie McMurray and subsequently Jimmie Johnson, while Juan Montoya had a scary moment flying up the track, and he lost several positions trying to keep the #42 safely off the wall.
The mandatory green flag four-tyre pit stops came up on lap 25; Kurt Busch was the only driver to fall foul of this, when he was given a drive-thru penalty for a pit crew member coming over the wall too soon. Brad Keselowski went six laps down as the pit crew went to work on a serious brake problem on the #2.
The racing continued without incident through to the scheduled break point at the end of lap 50, and everyone came in for a more normal round of pit stops and mixture of assorted tyre strategies and adjustments. Dale Earnhardt Jr had the longest stop for major adjustments after finding the #88 impossible to wrangle out of19th place, and Kevin Harvick was also looking uncharacteristically off the pace.
Racing resumed with Carl Edwards taking the lead after the pit stops, followed by Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Regan Smith. Biffle got loose at the restart and fell to fifth, fought off Kyle Busch and then caught up Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne to fight over second - only for the second caution of the night to come out on lap 58 when Biffle tapped Kahne into the wall, which sent him into pit lane and to the garage.
The restart on lap 62 rapidly went three-wide with a lot of minor bumping and contact; Johnson took the lead from Edwards, only for the #99 to retake the lead down the inside on the backstretch just before the scheduled caution came out for the end of the second segment (which came with a nice incentive prize of $25,000.)
Johnson was among those drivers to take up the option of a pit stop, but Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin all stayed out at the front. Edwards spun his wheels at the restart allowing Kyle to slip back into the lead for the first time since the start of the race, and Jeff Gordon to slip into second place.
Matt Kenseth encouraged Regan Smith into a spin on lap 74 which brought out a fourth yellow; Johnson was again among those to come in for a pit stop, this time taking a full set of four tyres while he was there.
The restart on lap 78 saw Kyle Busch retain the lead, but Jeff Gordon got a poor restart and he dropped out of second place and back to sixth, allowing Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart to move up closer to the #18. Finally on lap 86 Edwards turned on the afterburners and rocketed past Busch to take the lead just in time for end of segment 3 (which came with a cheque for an extra $125,000 walking money, for those keeping count.)
After the ten minute break, it was time for the pit stop challenge portion of the All-Star race. The top five order coming in was Edwards, Busch, Biffle, Stewart and Hamlin; Edwards won the race off pit road and continued to lead with Busch and Biffle also maintaining position through the round of pit stops; the biggest loser was Tony Stewart who fell three spots, while Matt Kenseth gained two putting him ahead of David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin, then Stewart and Johnson.
For Edwards, winning the race off pit road was critical. "The key to winning this race are the guys behind me," Edwards said, indicating his pit crew. "They performed a flawless pit stop, and we got out in front of Kyle. He is a bear on those restarts, and if we had started behind him, I think it would have been really tough."
He got a great start when the green flag came out and pulled away from Busch, who was fending off a determined attack by Biffle for second place. That gave Edwards a critical few seconds to clear the field of battle, and while Kyle was soon back on the hunt it was already too late - if there were no cautions, then Edwards had too big a lead for Busch to make a late comeback.
And there were no cautions, although there were a few incidents that might have caused one if they'd gone another way: Mark Martin got some bodywork damage from contact with Jimmie Johnson that sent the veteran to the garage, while Tony Stewart got into the rear of Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch made heavy contact with the wall in turn 4 on lap 93. But with two laps to go, the field had string out into single file and while Kyle had pulled back Edwards' lead to just 0.4s, he was out of time to finish the job.
"We came up a little bit short, but we got beat by a faster car," said Kyle, after Edwards crossed the finish line in first place and claimed the All-Start title, trophy - and pay cheque. "A few more laps and maybe I would have got him, but all we had was 10 ... Tonight we just flat got beat." At least he could take solace in this being his best-ever finish in the event, the All-Star Race not having been the happiest of hunting grounds for the #18 in past years to say the least.
The only thing that didn't go right for Edwards was his victory celebrations - when an attempted a spin on the infield grass only to cave in the front of the trusty #99 car on the undulating surface so badly it couldn't be driven back to victory road. It didn't stop Edwards using the side door for his trademark backflip, however.
And that $1 million pay check will presumably pay for a little panel beating; and with the segment wins as well, his total take-home pay is $1,203,300, the most ever won by someone in a single All-Star event. Edwards is the 19th different winner of the event in 27 All-Stars, and it's the first time he's won the tournament in six attempts.
Normal Sprint Cup service resumes next week - still at Charlotte Motor Speedway.Full race results available