Tom Bowles
Thursday May 14th, 2009

With drugs, Dale Jr., and Darlington dominating the headlines this week, you can be forgiven for forgetting the Cup Series has an All-Star race Saturday night. Of course, it's not just any old version; the sport is celebrating the event's Silver Anniversary with a race designed for fans to see the sport's biggest stars duke it out with nothing but pride and money on the line.

Through the years, All-Star races have offered us fantastic finishes and a snapshot of the sport's explosive growth during the 1990s and beginning of this decade. So in honor of the 25th annual All-Star Race, let's take a look at the five best editions and how they shaped the sport.

What more can you ask for from a race? This one had multiple lead changes on the last lap. Heading toward the white flag, Dale Earnhardt was leading Kyle Petty and Davey Allison. But down the backstretch, the Intimidator got Intimidated by the front bumper of Petty's No. 42, causing him to enter Turn 3 a little off-kilter -- just enough to eventually lose control.

The rest of the field sped by in a move that appeared to hand victory to Petty. But after slowing up for the No. 3 car's spin, Petty lost just enough momentum for Allison to challenge in the outside groove. Down the stretch they came, neither giving an inch as they drag raced to the finish line. Just before the flag, they touched. Allison's car slammed the outside wall hard ... but also crossed the finish line first.

It was the ultimate highlight in NASCAR's 10-lap shootout during the final segment, an All-Star Race staple that makes its return this year after a couple of years on hiatus. And while Allison spent the night in the hospital instead of Victory Lane -- he was diagnosed with a slight concussion -- it was a shot heard 'round the racing world that got more fans to pay attention to a fast-growing sport.

No other race represented a changing of the guard more than this one. Twenty-three-year-old Jeff Gordon, in his third full Cup season, started third in the final 10-lap shootout behind seven-time Cup champ Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. Earnhardt and Waltrip put on a duel for the ages in front of Gordon, charging hard through turns 3 and 4 on the restart. But at the end of that first lap, Earnhardt lost control, sending Waltrip into the outside wall as he crashed hard down the frontstretch. While both cars were totaled, Gordon swooped by and went on to his first All-Star race victory.

But just as important as the win was its aftermath. One month later, Gordon assumed the points lead and wound up trouncing Earnhardt for his first career Cup Series title. Earnhardt never seriously contended for another championship, while Waltrip -- who suffered broken ribs in that wreck -- saw his career tank with just three top-5 finishes in his final five years of driving.

This race featured the debut of the new, 10-lap shootout idea that wound up cementing Earnhardt's bad boy reputation. It didn't take long for sparks to fly: Geoff Bodine's spin going into turn 1 allowed Earnhardt so slip by both him and Bill Elliott for the lead. On the ensuing restart, Earnhardt held off a frantic charge by Elliott, the two cars beating and banging to the point the No. 3 car nearly spun out coming off turn 3. Dubbed the "Pass in the Grass," Earnhardt mowed the lawn down the frontstretch while using amazing car control to keep his car straight -- maintaining his edge over Elliott in the process. Ensuring the Man In Black got the last laugh, he pushed rival Elliott into the backstretch a short time later, wrapping up his first career All-Star race win.

By the middle of '96, Michael Waltrip was beginning to wonder if he would ever make it in Cup. In his 11th full-time season of driving, he'd struggled to emerge from the shadow of older brother Darrell, and gone winless, posting just 15 top-5 finishes in over 300 career starts. The track record was so poor the younger Waltrip didn't even initially qualify for the All-Star Race (then known as The Winston); he made the field on the strength of the fifth and final transfer spot from the preliminary race that night.

But after so many years of Waltrip trying, luck bounced the right way for the No. 21 Ford. Climbing from 20th into the top 5 for the final 10-lap shootout, Waltrip found an opening when Earnhardt and Terry Labonte made contact battling for the win. Streaking by both cars, he breezed to victory and remains one of just two drivers to score their first career "win" in the All-Star race (Ryan Newman is the other). While the win didn't produce lasting momentum (it would be five years before Waltrip won again), it legitimized his Cup career in the biggest upset in All-Star history.

One year after Dale Earnhardt's death, the race illustrated the stark difference in styles between father and son. During the final laps of the race, Earnhardt Jr. was glued to the back bumper of Newman's No. 12. On the last lap, Junior had a chance to pull the patented bump and run, but once Newman got squirrelly, Junior took a page out of his own playbook and backed off -- allowing Newman to grab the win in a move his Intimidating father would have never made.

"If he'd have spun out, I would have come back to the checkered flag -- but that would have kind of been bittersweet," Junior said afterwards. "I mean, $750,000 is a lot of money -- an awful lot of money. But it ain't worth all the people that you'd piss off by wrecking somebody to get it."

So much has been written about the Jeremy Mayfield drug suspension, but there's so little we know. And here's what's so frustrating: with drivers unaware of what substances they're being tested for, NASCAR runs the risk of looking like a sport that can pick and choose which athletes it targets. Greater transparency is needed if the outside world is going to take this drug policy seriously.

* The Cup Series has weathered the economy well in 2009 -- with full fields for all 11 races this season -- but don't count your chickens just yet. A NASCAR owner predicted this week that six or seven Cup cars might go under when the series hits midsummer, as at least more than a few sponsors are pulling the dreaded "IOU" with their Cup teams instead of actually sending the checks. It's something to keep an eye on ...

The same goes for how the government handles Chrysler's bankruptcy. With a judge forced to approve every dollar the company's allowed to spend, the company still has to get over the hurdle of justifying why it pours millions into stock car racing. If the government says "no dice," not only will the manufacturer be forced out of the sport, but it sets a precedent that GM could be forced to follow if it files for bankruptcy.

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