NASCAR's top drivers have been taking the week off the usual grind of the never-ending 2013 Cup championship battle, and instead been racing just for the fun of it. Fun - and a couple of million dollars in total prize funds in the offing as well, shared between the winners of the four 20-lap segments and the ultimate victor in a final 10-lap sprint to the chequered flag.
But before the main event could get underway, there was the small matter of the Sprint Showdown support race to take care of. The winner and runner-up in this 40-lap event would get to compete in the All-Star Race that followed, so there were at least a million reasons for the 23 drivers involved to race flat-out for the prize.
Starting on the front row alongside Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray immediately went into the lead at the green flag - and stayed there. When the scheduled yellow came out at the midway point, McMurray made track position his priority and went for a two-tyre stop only, duly coming back out to take the restart on the front row alongside Casey Mears who had stayed out. McMurray made quick work of him when the green flag came out and immediately leapt away into the lead, never to be caught again before the chequered.
McMurray's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team mate Juan Pablo Montoya was not so lucky and was penalised for speeding in the pit lane which meant he could recover to no better than sixth in the remaining 20 laps. That left the second spot wide open and it was Roush Fenway's Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who slid into that spot by the end to claim the second All-Star spot on offer. The third and final transfer spot went to the winner of the fan vote not already locked-in, and it was to no one's surprise that this turned out to be Stewart-Haas' Danica Patrick.
That completed the field for the All-Star race, with Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch leading them to the green flag at the start of 90 laps in total of the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The start was slightly delayed by rain passing through the area pushing it past half nine at night, but even when showery rain pushed in again a few minutes later and led to a 40 minute red flag there were no concerns about getting the race in - Charlotte's floodlights were blazing brightly and the track president talking about how they'd gone as late a 1.30am in the past.
One person not having to worry about a late night was reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, however. The #2 team had fitted a new radiator to the car prior to the race, but three laps in and he was already off the pace. A broken transmission was diagnosed, and even with the rain delay that followed there was no chance of getting the car patched up in time to take part in the evening's entertainment.
"Something just broke in the back half of the drive train, either the transmission or drive shaft gear, I'm not sure which one. It's one of those deals, unfortunately - we'll try to learn from it and move on," he said, ruing the lost opportunity for some quality track time at Charlotte ahead of next weekend's Coca-Cola 600. "You'd like to learn a little bit more about the track and the race, but I've got a team mate out there in Joey Logano and hopefully he can learn something."
With Keselowski and the rain out of the way, the rest of the competitors got underway and soon the first segment was in the books, with Kurt Busch emerging as the winner for Furniture Row Racing narrowly beating his kid brother Kyle to the first of the night's pay-outs. The second segment saw the only accident-related caution of the night, caused when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall in turn 4 and ended up collecting Mark Martin in the aftermath, sending the #55 through the infield grass as a result. Both cars were able to continue, albeit not in the same pristine state in which they'd started.
The winner of the second segment was also named Busch, but this time the younger brother claimed the cash. As most cars streamed onto pit lane for new tyres, Clint Bowyer stayed out to assume the lead for Michael Waltrip Racing, but in no time at all Kyle had resumed his position at the front and continued there for the remainder of the third segment, but when it came to the start of the next phase of the race Kyle found himself on the bruising end of a three-wide battle that left him displaced by his hold sparring partner from Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne; however, when the end of the segment loomed it was Busch to the fore once more - although this time in the interests of fraternal balance it was Kurt rather than Kyle who positioned himself for the cash pay-off.
Four segments down, two-all to the Busch brothers with no one else getting a look-in: which of them was to get the ultimate prize at the end of the final ten-lap dash? Although Kurt and Kyle formed the front row going into this last part of the event, the action started with a mandatory four-tyre pit stop for all cars - and neither Busch won the race off pit road, the prize of track position for the restart going instead to Kasey Kahne.
"We didn't have a good stop and came out too far behind," admitted Kyle, unusually since the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing crew is known for putting their man out ahead of the competition during the regular Cup season. "We came out third, but still you got to be on the front row if you're going to win this deal in 10 laps.
"A little slow on the stop and then getting beat around on the restart," he continued. "Everybody running into me, knocking me around and sucking on my door and spinning me out. Can't get going on any of the restarts with everybody crowding me.
"That's the All-Star race," he shrugged. "That's what happens. That's fine. Had plenty of speed tonight, but as always, the best car here with me behind the wheel don't win."
Nor did his brother Kurt fare much better, the #78 ending up down in fifth place for the green flag. "We were one tick slow on our pit stop and one tick off on the chassis adjustment. That was the difference. You have to be perfect to win this race. We weren't. It was an A- overall performance."
So Kahne was in the box seat for the final restart - only to lose it to his Hendrick team mate Jimmie Johnson, who had taken the green on the front row after recovering from a poor qualifying (a dropped lugnut in the mandatory pit stop that is a part of the unique format of deciding the grid for the All-Star race) and from a slow start to he evening (he'd picked up to just 15th place in the first segment and appeared to slog his way up through the field over the remainder of the race.)
Benefiting from a great pit stop from the #48 Hendrick crew, he blitzed his team mate and scampered away to collect the night's big prize - the fourth time he's managed it in his 12 appearances in the event. It breaks a three-way tie with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. who have won it three times in their careers, and puts Johnson in a class of his own - much to his surprise, he admitted.
"That's crazy. Gosh, to beat Jeff and Earnhardt, two guys that I've looked up to my whole life and two massive icons of our sport, this means the world to me," he said.
“I really didn't think we had a shot at winning tonight, starting (18th), but we had a great race car and worked our way through there and got the job done," said Johnson. "We had a great race car and worked our way through there and got the job done
"Over time, honestly, it's just dedication and drive from every member of Hendrick Motorsports, and every member on this #48 team," he continued. "We're very proud of what we've done and what we've accomplished, but we know we've got to keep pushing harder and keep pushing one another and we did it again here tonight."
Kahne meanwhile had a poor getaway at the restart and ended up dropping to fourth place by the line, splitting the two Busch brothers. But all of them were bush-whacked by the #22 Penske of Joey Logano, who delivered that extra learning that his unfortunate team mate Keselowski had been hoping for after his own premature exit earlier in the evening by finishing in second place.
"The #22 guys did a great job with great pit stops," said Logano. "They got us that last spot before the ten to go and that put us in the second row. That was important.
"I had a good restart, pushed the #5 out there and then the #48 was fast," he explained. "The only shot I had is to get a caution and get our Pennzoil Ford up against him, but that was my only shot to have a restart and have to really pin him or do something to try to win this thing. Unfortunately for Logano the final ten laps were caution-free and he ended up 1.722s behind Johnson when the race finished.
"It was really close. Second is awesome, but then it sucks at the same time because you're like, 'Oh, that was so close,'" Logano admitted. "But the guys did a great job. They made this car continually better all day, got our track position at the end. I just wish we had another caution. We weren't the winning car, but I wish we had another caution to at least give him a run for his money."
Talking of money, Johnson walks away with just over a million dollars for his night's efforts, while Logano earns just under a quarter of that amount with his runners-up spot. Kyle Busch walks away $144k richer with a combination of the two segment finishes plus third place overall, with Kasey Kahne pocketing $114k for his time and effort.
Next week NASCAR is back to normal, and back at Charlotte, for the Coca-Cola 600. One of the longest events on the Sprint Cup calendar, it's held on Memorial Day holiday weekend and is timed to start soon after the climax of the Indianapolis 500.
Full All-Star and Sprint Showdown race results