When Ricky Craven reflects back on his 1997 Sprint Showdown win, the retired Sprint Cup Series driver and current ESPN analyst doesn’t view the victory as one of his major accomplishments.
It's not that Craven doesn't relish the win - he does - but it pales in comparison to his two later wins in points-paying events with full 43-car fields.So is a win in the Sprint Showdown insignificant?
Both then and now it’s important for reasons beyond just gaining entry into the prestigious All-Star Race held later that night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That was certainly true for Craven, who at the time was in his third Cup season but first with Hendrick Motorsports.
“It meant a tremendous amount,” said Craven, who didn’t capture his first points win until Martinsville in 2001. “It did provide a little bit of a boost and it did provide a little bit of momentum and there’s just no substitute for winning – period. I can’t necessarily look at it that way today, 13 years later, but I can say that there’s an absolute carry-over for the guys who have won. It carries over to the next race that night and it carries over to the next week and it often can carry over and affect your season.”
Drivers who have won the Showdown – now a 40-lap affair out of which only the top two finishers advance to the All-Star Race – have indeed gone on to do big things.
Look no further than Tony Stewart, who won the Showdown as a rookie in 1999 and ran second to Terry Labonte in the All-Star Race later that night. Stewart has since earned two Cup titles and 37 points-paying wins, in addition to his triumph in the 2009 All-Star Race.
Through all his success, the Showdown win has remained memorable.
“It was awesome,” said the Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner/driver. “To do what we did, even though it wasn’t with a full field…I mean just to win a race. Winning is winning to me. I was real appreciative of it and just excited that we got to victory lane once.”
Other past Showdown winners who have enjoyed solid if not stellar careers include Sterling Marlin (1988, 1989 and 1993), Jeff Gordon (1994) Jeff Burton (2003), Brian Vickers (2005) and Martin Truex Jr. (2007).
Past Cup winners looking to make the 2010 All-Star Race via the Showdown include Burton, his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle and Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards.
Also returning to the Showdown is 2009 kingpin Sam Hornish Jr., who obviously covets a repeat.
“It was the first time I’ve ever won anything in a stock car, so I was pretty happy about that,” the Penske Racing driver said.
“I also earned my first NASCAR trophy by winning the Sprint Showdown and it was such a thrill for me and the entire Mobil 1 team."
Michael Waltrip, who won the 1996 All-Star Race for Wood Brothers Racing, also scored a pair of Showdown triumphs in 1991 and 1992. While competing in the Showdown can be stressful for drivers trying to earn their way into one of the season's most anticipated races, Waltrip considers it all a matter of perspective.
“I’ve done it before and while it isn’t ideal, you want to go there with a plan of racing in the All-Star Race,” Waltrip said. “It’s not a bad thing either. Not only have I done it, but Kasey Kahne did it. ... It’s not a death sentence. If you can transfer in, then you’re in good shape to try to win.”
Truex finished 10th in the All-Star Race as a transfer driver and believes that running the Showdown can actually behoove one's All-Star effort.
“This place is one of those tracks we go to that really changes from daylight to dark,” he said of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The Showdown usually ends at dusk and the sun is still out a little bit. Yes, you can learn some. It's great to have 40 laps … to feel out your car and see what changes you need to make and be ahead of the curve when the All-Star Race starts."
If a driver doesn’t win the Showdown, his last potential All-Star ticket is the Sprint Fan Vote.
But only once in the six-year history of the vote has a driver managed to partake in All-Star glory after being chosen by the fans.
That driver was Kahne and the year was 2008.
"We were in fifth place in the Showdown, which was not very good," Kahne said. " ... Once (the All-Star Race) went green, I was like, ‘Man, we’re actually fast. We have a shot.' So from that point on I was good, but when they voted me in I was probably thinking I was going to finish 15th, 20th. And then when the race went green I was like, ‘Uh oh. We’re going to be good.’”