Editor’s note: Eighteen drivers are guaranteed to start in the May 22 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, which will be televised live on SPEED, starting at 7 p.m. Following is the first of the 18 profiles of those drivers locked into the field.
Feast or famine?
There seems to be no other way for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Ten years ago, Earnhardt Jr. moved into rarefied air by not only winning the All-Star race but becoming the first Cup rookie to capture the prestigious exhibition event. Then he celebrated in victory lane with his seven-time Cup champion father, the late Dale Earnhardt.
To see Earnhardt Jr. that night – bolting by then-defending series champion Dale Jarrett for the lead with less than two laps left, beating his father by two positions – one might have expected him to have a few more all-star trophies in his collection by now.
In fact, the last nine years have produced more all-star race disappointments for Earnhardt Jr. than successes.
Since finishing second to Ryan Newman in the 2002 running of the annual event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. has been a virtual non-factor.
The native of nearby Kannapolis, N.C., has just one top-five - a fifth-place showing in 2004 with his former team at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Earnhardt Jr. has finished eighth and 10th, respectively, in the two all-star races since leaving DEI for Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2007 and in the process has been less than impressive.
The good news is that Earnhardt Jr. has shown improvements this season from 2009 when he failed to win and finished a career-worst 25th in points, so that could bode well for his bid to notch a second All-Star victory this season.
“Winning the All-Star race was definitely a big moment in my career,” said Earnhardt Jr., who turned 35 last Oct. 10. “It’s hard to beat the whole spectacle that goes into winning the all-star race. There is a lot of money up for grabs – over a million dollars – but there is a lot of pride wrapped up in that winner’s purse as well.”
While Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t always found the going easy in the non-points paying event – which this year features a 100-lap format broken into four segments – he continues to enjoy it. After all, with no points and a $1 million purse on the line, there’s not a lot to lose.
And no one seems to remember who finishes second – like he did after a close duel with Newman that saw Earnhardt Jr. back off when he could’ve spun Newman off the second turn on the white-flag lap.
“You're not worried about it going 400 or 500 miles, so you can do things kind of like we used to do in the short-track days,” said Earnhardt Jr., who cut his teeth racing Late Models at Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the early to mid-'90s. “That's what makes this so much fun: It's like being back on the short tracks and letting it all hang out for the sprint rather than the marathon. … The crew guys get recognized at the introductions and we get to go out near the fans right before the race.
“It's the way it should be: Under the lights, a lot of excitement and a million bucks to win? Of course, that's the topping on the cake. Anybody that tells you they don't have their eye on that million is lying to your face.”
Earnhardt Jr. would probably feel the same way about anyone who considers the All-Star race easier to win than a traditional points-paying event.
Perhaps more so than most races, deft pit strategy has proven to be pivotal to triumphing in the All-Star race. And, of course, there’s also the matter of avoiding the all-too-familiar wrecks that typically occur with a $1 million winner’s check at stake.
“Winning the All-Star race is really hard because obviously you only get a shot at it once a year and there's so much preparation going into it and it's an exciting race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think it's a great addition to our season.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.
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