It's been a very, very good week for Jimmie Johnson. Last week he broke an annoying personal drought of victories to deliver Hendrick Motorsport's 200th Sprint Cup series win; and buoyed along by that success, he rolled right on to win again this week and walk away with NASCAR's biggest race prize of the year, the All-Star million dollar jackpot.
The non-championship All-Star Race had re-jigged its format again this year, so that the event consisted of four 20-lap segments with the winners of each portion of the race then taking the four leading spots for a final 10-lap dash for the cash at the end.
The field consisted of Sprint Cup race winners from 2011 and 2012 together with previous Cup and All-Star champions of the last decade. To this 20-car line-up was added the winner of a fan vote, and the winner and runner-up of the Sprint Showdown race open to all Cup regulars not otherwise qualified for the All-Star.
AJ Allmendinger had claimed pole for the Showdown, but then had disaster strike before the green flag when his left front tyre go down, forcing him to pit road just as everyone else was getting up to race speed. That left second place man Martin Truex Jr. fighting it out with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead, a battle that Earnhardt won out of turn 4 to lead the first lap. Despite a bobble next time around that could have provoked a wreck, Earnhardt held on to the top spot for the next 40 laps to claim the Showdown win and one of the three remaining spots in the All-Star race. It was his first Showdown win, but he's only had to compete in the race twice since before he's been able to move directly into the All-Star Race via other means.
"Tonight, you have to go, right out of the gate. You don't have time to wait on the car," said Earnhardt later. "You've got to go right out of the gate, and that really comes down to the team."
Despite some early door-banging between Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray that sent Logano perilously close to the wall on lap 5, the first half of the Showdown proceeded without stoppages. The scheduled mid-race caution and pit stops did nothing to shake up the running order but made show everyone was nicely compacted together for the restart, by which time AJ Allmendinger had managed to work his way back into the top ten after that early misfortune. The remaining caution-free 20 laps of the Showdown were all about watching AJ work his way forward, and thanks to capitalising on a late mistake by Jamie McMurray, by the time the chequered flag came out Allmendinger had done enough to finish in the runners-up spot behind Earnhardt and book his place into the All-Star Race.
"I gave it everything I had," said Allmendinger. "If I didn't make it, I didn't want to it be for a lack of trying ... I wasn't going to let them down - I was going to do everything I could to get them in there, or I was going to wreck trying!"
That just left the winner of the fan vote to be added to the line-up. The winner of this vote would normally be a formality - Earnhardt always wins these sort of popularity contests - but his win in the Showdown meant he was out of the running. AJ Allmendinger would probably have been the next favourite to win the vote, but he too no longer had any need of it. All of which was much to the good fortune of Bobby Labonte, who swept in and won the poll after 2.4 million votes had been cast, and he duly joined the other 22 drivers for the main event, his 17th All-Star start - having come close to deciding to skip the event altogether for financial reasons.
"That is a great honor," said Labonte. "You always want to be, and you'd like to be, and there are a lot of great race-car divers in this event that could easily get this same type of vote. But thank the fans for doing it."