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."

Polesitter for the All-Star race was Kyle Busch, who had the luxury of being able to scamper off into the lead at the green flag. Things were much closer in the chasing pack, and it was Jimmie Johnson who managed to take full advantage of the situation, starting from sixth to pick off the low-hanging fruit and quickly rise to second place, allowing him to break away and hunt down Busch for the lead. The #48 was looking in awesome form, and 15 laps into the first 20-lap segment Johnson was able to take the high line through turn 4 to swoop past Busch for the lead just in time to win the first stage of the event.

That gave Johnson the chance to basically put his feet up for the next three segments, as that stage win meant he had locked himself into pole position for the final ten-lap dash at the end which was all that really mattered. In the meantime, he could cruise around at the back, stay out of trouble and keep the car in tip-top form for the finish.

He left the restart in the hands of Denny Hamlin, who had to fight off Paul Menard for the lead. Menard had already tangled with Kevin Harvick in the first stint of the race and was no match for the #11, but any hopes in Hamlin's minds that he could just disappear off into the distance were dashed when the engine on Carl Edwards' car let go, putting the 2011 All-Star winner out of the running this year.

"I had red warning lights on the dash the whole time. We had the front taped up too much, trying to get too much down force, and we just broke it." said Edwards. "Last year was so awesome winning this thing. You might have lost a driver out of this race, but you gained a fan - I'm gonna go watch the rest of this thing. It's insane back there in traffic!"

Hamlin led the field to the restart alongside Marcos Ambrose, but it was Matt kenseth who was in charging form and who quickly passed Ambrose to hunt down Hamlin for the race lead, which he took around the high side with three laps to spare to claim the second segment win. Behind him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also looking strong, quickly passing both Ambrose and Hamlin to finish the stage in second place.

That meant Kenseth could now join Johnson safely trolling around at the back, leaving the battle at the restart to Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. With Kahne preoccupied holding off Harvick, Keselowski took advantage to pull out an immediate lead, but that tightened up as the third 20-lap stint wore on. Kahne pulled right back up to Keselowski's rear bumper, but he could find no way past the blue deuce before the segment ended, with Keselowski having booked his way onto the second row of the grid for the final 10-lap sprint yet to come. He, too, could now take a breather for a while.

Kurt Busch had command of the restart for the next segment and attempted to blast his way clear of the rest of the field. But his car simply didn't have that sort of edge over the top teams, and instead he fell victim to Dale Earnhardt Jr. who got a run on the #51 down the backstretch and passed him three laps into the segment. AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne quickly followed Junior's lead, before the racing was rudely interrupted by the second Ford engine failure of the night when Greg Biffle's car blew up in unequivocal fiery fashion.

While several cars pitted under the ensuing caution, there was no change at the front and the restart saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. blasting away from AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne for a lead of some 15 car lengths. With only 5 laps remaining in the segment there was no chance for anyone to come back on his, and with no further premature cautions Earnhardt duly aced the segment victory and booked himself into the top four for the final ten-lap stage of the All-Star event that was to follow.

First segment winner Johnson was now duly returned to the front along with Kenseth, and Keselowski and Earnhardt on the second row in time for the final green flag, with Marcos Ambrose the best of the rest in fifth place. Johnson claimed the preferred inside line by winning the final race of pit lane, leaving Kenseth with the challenge of the outside high line - and that proved to be decisive.

Just when Matt Kenseth needed his best restart of the night, his form deserted him. He couldn't get the #17 up to speed when the green flag came out and had to watch not only Johnson pull away, but Keselowski follow him through on the inside line for second.

"That outside lane seemed to be trouble for everybody on the restarts, and I had more trouble than most for some reason," admitted Kenseth said. "It was extremely, extremely frustrating.

"When I restarted on the bottom earlier in the race, I got going fine," he lamented. "But on the outside, my wheels just kept spinning, and they'd drive by me because I just couldn't get it to go."

That left Keselowski as the only threat to Johnson's victory, and while he initially stalked the #48 pretty close it was soon clear that Johnson's class had more than enough to pull away to a comfortable margin. With no late-race cautions, the deed was done and Johnson was heading to victory lane for the second time in a week, and for the third time in the All-Star Race in 11 starts in the event for the five-time Sprint Cup champion.

"Within two corners tonight ... I knew it was on," said Johnson. "I was able to get to the lead in that first segment and really set our night in the right direction and have control of the night. Everybody knew that, if you could win that first segment, you could control the night, and we were able to do that.

"It was pretty awesome," he added.

Keselowski was safe in second, but that was still a million dollars down on the winner. Kenseth was left kicking himself in third place, and Kyle Busch pulled off late passes on Earnhardt and Ambrose to finish in fourth place.

While that's the small matter of the million dollar purse decided, for many of the drivers the real importance of Saturday night's exhibition race is that it's an early test session for next week's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the longest race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar. While Johnson must be counted one of the favourites after clinching the All-Star win, his Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also feeling buoyed by his performance winning the Showdown and then the final segment in the main event.

"Don't let me forget to tell you ... how much I'm looking forward to the 600," Earnhardt said to crew chief Steve Letarte over the team radio.

"I think we showed what we're capable of doing here next weekend," said Earnhardt later. "We're probably going to bring the same car. We've got a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster."

Letarte agreed. "I think if we can repeat that sort of speed, we'll have a great 600," he said. "The thing I liked about it the most is, we really didn't adjust it all night. "Hopefully that will give us a good benchmark to get going [next week.]

The signs are promising for Earnhardt being about to ride the sudden surge in Hendrick form all the way to victory lane, after a painfully long drought between wins?



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