The long NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule includes 34 races that pay drivers with points. Points they need to make the Chase. But for Saturday night's All-Star Race, it's just about winning.
The only thing that counts is taking the checkered flag and the $1 million prize that comes with it. Driver had to deal with yet another new format to this year's event. Winners of each of the four 20-lap segments were the first four cars to head down pit road for the final pit stop which ensured each would start up front in the final 10-lap shootout.
After winning the opening segment, Jimmie Johnson went to the back of the pack and hung out in the next three. It turned out to be a perfect strategy to collect the cash. So, let's get to the "Five Things We Learned in the All-Star Race" at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
No matter the sport, an All-Star event is designed to showcase the best of the best. And Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race saw the best driver in NASCAR over the past 10 years drive to victory as five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson won the $1 million prize for the third time in his career.
Last Saturday night, Johnson drove to victory in an "official" Cup race to give team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory. Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson gave Hendrick another victory worth $1 million, although the race does not count as a Sprint Cup points-paying event.
During the final 10-lap shootout Johnson was the lead car in a three-car breakaway that included Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski in a Dodge and Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth in a Ford.
"Man, Mr. H it's been a big week for you brother," crew chief Chad Knaus said over the team's radio. "We love you man."
"Man, that's a heck of a job, buddy," Hendrick radioed to Johnson. "What a week we are having."
"I don't want it to end," Johnson radioed back before doing some celebratory burnouts and taking the checkered flag.
Johnson came down pit road and had team owner Hendrick hitch a ride on the No. 48 Chevrolet driving down the front stretch in the seventh All-Star win for Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson joins Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only three-time winners of this event.
After starting sixth, Johnson's effort to get good track position for the final 10-lap shootout was all he needed to pull away at the end.
"From winning last weekend with the 200th win at Darlington, then take the pit crew and win the Pit Crew competition and then to win tonight was great," Johnson said. "We weren't sure we could get there starting sixth but I put it on the outside of that first segment, let it rip and took the lead and then we played it smart and won that first segment.
"What a night tonight for myself and all these fans out there."
It was indeed a special night for Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick. Look for this combination to be the favorite heading into next Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Brad Keselowski was the winner of the third segment which allowed him to start third in the 10-lap shootout.
"It's all about the restart," Keselowski said. "I was hoping for another yellow because I would have liked another shot. I thought we might have been a touch faster but it wasn't meant to be. I'm proud of our team; it's getting stronger every week, every day and every hour. We got beat by a five-time champion and a three-time All-Star winner. I just wish I had another shot at him."
Keselowski believes the new format was easy for some of the drivers to figure out the strategy to win the big money at the end.
"The new format was certainly something different, which I kind of liked, something just different," Keselowski said. "We were fortunate enough to win one of the segments, like you said, with Kasey Kahne. That was a lot of fun. Then it's all about making sure you're as good as you can be for that last section of the race. I feel like we were as good as we knew how to be. Jimmie was a little bit better. He did a great job. Hats off to him.
"We had a respectable night, for sure. You can't be angry with a second, but I wanted to win that one extra spot. We just didn't have it. I'm proud of the progress with where we started. We started 18th or 19th, I can't remember where, got a second place out of that. That's really good for the All Star race and the way it plays out. Good racing all the way through the midsections of the race. Just when I could have gotten to Jimmie and done something with him, but he was just lightning quick."
Keselowski is developing into one of the best drivers in NASCAR and look for him to continue to heat up as the series heads into the hotter summer months.
Kenseth won the second segment and started second over the final 10 laps. He would finish third, but showed he is having a great season.
"It was good we were able to win that second segment I guess kind of by accident," Kenseth said. "Jimmy (Fennig, crew chief) and I were talking about pitting, decided last minute to stay out. I got out front, had a great hard race with Denny Hamlin to get the win in the second one. After that it's kind of different because you spend 40 laps thinking about the last one, not over-revving your engine. From there on out, we tried to save our stuff, make sure we had the tires on our car coming down pit road for that stop and go, made sure we were in shape for that.
"We had a good start but I was disappointed at the last restart. I couldn't get going. That outside lane was really, really hard on restarts. The few times I was on the bottom, the outside guy would lose three or four spots. In a 10-lap shootout when you have all the fast guys up front, when you're third going into turn one; it's going to be pretty hard to win it."
NASCAR's most popular driver took two checkered flags on Saturday night, including the Sprint Showdown that allowed him to advance into the All-Star Race. Earnhardt would also win the fourth segment of the All-Star Race, but unfortunately, neither of those victories counts as "official" so his long Cup winless streak continues.
"In the Showdown I learned that our car is pretty good," Earnhardt said after winning the preliminary. "That is what I had time to learn. We will work on that and try to do our best. I want to take the opportunity to thank Sprint and NASCAR for putting on this All-Star Race it's a great opportunity to have a lot of fun and want to say hello to everybody who has donated to the foundation, the Dale Jr. Foundation, we have worked really hard to raise a lot of money to help out a lot of people. This is kind of what tonight is about."
Earnhardt finished fifth in the All-Star Race.
"The car was good and the race was good; it was pretty quick all night but we needed to start on the front row at the end," Earnhardt said. "I'm proud of our effort tonight and look forward to next weekend. We're going to bring this car back next week for the 600."
Both defending All-Star winner Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle had special Roush Yates Racing Engines for this event in order to get a competitive edge. These engines were built for extra horsepower while sacrificing durability in an attempt to collect the cash. But when Biffle's engine blew up with 22 laps to go it was a spectacular fireball.
Biffle was able to pull the smoking heap off the track and climb out safely without incident, but it underlines the lengths the teams were willing to go in order to collect the cash in a race without having to worry about points.
Instead of racing for the big prize at the end, Edwards became a commentator for Speed telecast.
"No, this is not where I wanted to be, but I learned how hard you can push Doug Yates' engines," Edwards said. "I had red lights on the dash the whole time. We had it taped up too much trying to get too much down force and we just broke it. We went all-out and it didn't work. Last year was so much fun. We'll be back next year. This is our style of race and I was having a good time."