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.