Last year’s spate of upset and first-time victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has produced three first-time entrants in this year’s edition of the Sprint All-Star Race.
Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne and Paul Menard all will be making their respective first appearances in the big dance Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and there’s always a chance someone else could transfer in for the first time via the fan vote or by winning the Sprint Showdown qualifying race.
For the drivers, the first All-Star appearance is always exciting, and a little intimidating, too.
In the Sprint All-Star Race, rather than two laps of qualifying, the drivers make three laps with a mandatory four-tire pit stop, which makes the crews a key element in the process.
“It’s going to be a new experience,” said Menard, who made into the race by virtue of his Brickyard 400 victory last year. “I’m probably more nervous about qualifying and not screwing that up. I have to remember one lap vs. two, pit at the right time and all of that.”
Menard’s car owner, Richard Childress, has been known to tell his drivers, “Bring me the trophy or bringing me the steering wheel,” a nod to the no-points nature of the race, and indeed Menard has been caught in wrecks in three previous Sprint Showdown qualifying races.
“My mentality is, there’s no points and if you’re third it doesn’t mean anything, so you want to be ... first,” said Menard.
Ambrose, who like Menard has previously appeared in the Sprint Showdown but not the All-Star race, said he, too, is going for it Saturday night.
“My mentality is completely different going into this weekend than it has been in years past,” said Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. “Normally I worry about just making the big show via the Showdown and I really don't think about the opportunity to win a million dollars. This year, I'm already locked in and all I can think about is how to get my DeWalt team to be aggressive and how I can be aggressive so we can give ourselves the best chance to be in position to take home the big check at the end of the night.”
For Bayne’s team, the all-star race is a reward for winning the 2011 Daytona 500. Last year, the team skipped the event because Bayne was sidelined with a mystery illness.
“It’ll be nice to not have to worry about qualifying,” said Donnie Wingo, crew chief of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford Fusion. “It’s pretty neat to get to run the race, especially after we didn’t get to last year.”
So expect to see the three all-star rookies mixing it up under the lights on Saturday night.
“‘It pays a lot more to win,’ that's what Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. always said and I'm going into this weekend with that mentality,” said Ambrose. “We'll probably make some enemies out there because there are no points involved; there is nothing on the line but pride and a huge pay check.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.