You might think NASCAR's Nextel Cup drivers are busy enough without having to use a possible free weekend to run in a non-points race.
But, rather than being upset about Saturday night's Nextel All-Star Challenge -- which also includes the Nextel Open qualifying race -- at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., most of the drivers were excited about getting on track -- although for a couple of different reasons.
If you're one of the contenders in the feature race, you're competing for a $1 million payoff. If you're not likely to be racing for the big money, you can consider the evening a free test session.
"You know, with the limited testing rules in place now in NASCAR, the Open is approached in different ways," Kyle Petty explained. "Some people use it as a test and others are dead set on trying to get into the All-Star race.
"In the past, teams have brought one car just for the All-Star weekend and another one for the Coca-Cola 600 (the next week)."
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart never has been a big fan of testing, which he considers necessary but boring. But at least the All-Star race provides some competition while you're working on your car.
"If your car is driving well, you're running for a million dollars. But if your car isn't driving well, you're learning from that and applying it to the 600 instead," Stewart said. "I've always looked at it as however your car is driving in the All-Star race is relatively true to how your car is going to drive in the 600. It's a really good test because it's really the only time we have to run at night in race conditions."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. likes the All-Star event because it's good old-fashioned racing.
"It's something I look forward to every year," he said. "It's old-school. A short, frantic race where nobody is holding back, nobody is just out there riding around. You need to haul butt and do it for the full race."
The Challenge field includes race winners from the current and previous Cup seasons -- 18 drivers this year. The top two finishers in the Open also transfer to the Challenge, along with a driver who wins an online fan vote.
"Nextel Open is way too blah for what it actually is," said Joe Nemechek, who must qualify for the Challenge through the Open. "If they called it the no-holds-barred, go-for-broke Nextel Open, then that would be more accurate.
"This is an all-or-nothing sprint race that gets very dicey and very interesting. It's fun to drive in. I know I am ready to let it all hang out. I want to be in the All-Star race. There's a lot of money to be made along with the prestige of being part of the big dance."
There is also the fact that the All-Star weekend is part of a two-week stretch at home for most of the Cup drivers and their teams.
"I am running the truck race, then the All-Star race and have another Sunday off," noted Kyle Busch. "Just being at home is nice. You can just hang out at home the morning of the race and then come in early before the race to beat the traffic."
People always are asking Tony Stewart if NASCAR should just cancel the All-Star weekend and use the time to add another points race to the schedule.
"I don't think we need to add another points race to replace the All-Star race," he said. "I think it's nice to dedicate a weekend to the race fans.
"We put on a race for them where we're not worried about points. We're all hanging it out every lap, instead of three-quarters of the way through the season, where some guys are hanging it out while others are points racing. It's good to have one evening where we all just get up on the wheel and put on a good show for the fans."
Troy Raker, the interim crew chief for Kurt Busch, originally planned to try to use the same car for both the All-Star Challenge and the 600.
Those plans changed after the team tested at Lowe's Motor Speedway last week.
"We sorted it all out and will save our fastest car for the 600," Raker explained. "Since the All-Star race is always an anything-goes, take-no-prisoners shootout, our strategy this time around is to have an expendable car for that race.
"It's hard these days to try to rely on using the same car for both weekends. It's a secure feeling knowing that you're saving your best stuff for the big points-paying race."
Jeff Gordon, with three victories this season, already has surpassed the late Dale Earnhardt's career total of 76 victories by two. But this weekend he had the chance to break another Earnhardt mark.
Gordon went into Saturday night's race with three victories in the All-Star race, the same as Earnhardt.
The victory by Gordon in the 1995 event was particularly memorable for this season's Cup points leader.
"We won every segment that year, but it still was crazy during the final one," Gordon said. "I remember Darrell Waltrip restarted on the outside of me and Dale was right behind me.
"Dale made a great move and took us three-wide down the back straightaway. I lifted heading into the corner because I didn't think there was any way all three of us were going to make it through the corner. Sure enough, those two got together and crashed, and I was able to take the win.
"I'm sure it'll be crazy again this Saturday night during the last segment, but 20 laps is a lot of laps. And so much can happen in 20 laps at Lowe's Motor Speedway."
Stat of the Week--
The field for the All-Star Challenge was to include seven former Cup champions, accounting for a total of 11 titles, including four-time winner Gordon, two-time winner Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Saturday night's event also was to include six former All-Star winners -- Gordon, Kenseth, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Ryan Newman.
Story Courtesy: cbs.sportsline.com & AP Wire Reports
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