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For most of the Sprint All-Star Race, no one could touch Jimmie Johnson.
It was looking like another Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick/48 kind of race. By now, everyone knows the drill.
But Johnson was beaten on the final pit stop and came out third, then lost the air on his car while racing with Denny Hamlin (which was apparently a theme with Hamlin on Saturday night).
The 48 car spun through the infield grass – much to the delight of the crowd – and ultimately finished 13th despite leading a race-high 56 laps.
Afterward, Johnson immediately got out of his car and approached the waiting group of reporters to answer questions.
He didn't appear to be angry or overly disappointed and said he simply tried to make too much happen in crunch time.
"I knew I had to clear the No. 11 on the outside of me, so I just kept my foot in it and I could feel ... the outside of me kind of pulling the back end of my car around," he said. "But I said, 'The hell with it, it's the All-Star Race.' Kept my foot to the floor and hoped that I made it off the turn, and I didn't."
Johnson said he was mentally prepared for a wild ending and realized he was no longer in control of the outcome when he was beaten off pit road.
At that point, "I was needing a mistake (by other drivers) and I almost had one when the 18 (Kyle Busch) and the 11 (Hamlin) got together," he said. "But I was so occupied watching them and got out of the gas (because) I wasn't sure where they were going to go.
"Then the 2 (Kurt Busch) came blowing by on the inside."
And that's how the All-Star Race was won...and lost.
Here are the results of Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
In a year when NASCAR's biggest rivalries have been between teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin suddenly found themselves in the spotlight after an on-track incident in the Sprint All-Star Race left Busch livid.
During the final segment, a 10-lap shootout, Hamlin was leading the race with Busch closing in from behind. Hamlin moved up the track as Busch attempted to begin a pass on the outside and Busch ended up in the wall when he lost the air on the front of his car.
Busch was furious, and according to Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press, said on the team radio: "Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this race. I am going to kill that mother f*cker. ... I had this race won. Won."
He drove back to the garage where he parked his car outside Hamlin's hauler – not his own – and stormed into the truck's lounge area to wait for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Team owner Gibbs followed closely behind.
When Hamlin finished the race – he ended up fourth, with Busch 14th – he joined Busch and Gibbs inside the 11 hauler, where the three discussed the situation for approximately 20 minutes and reviewed the incident.
"They talked it over and I think both of them expressed what they felt about what happened on the racetrack," Gibbs said. "I feel good about it and I think they're ready to go race as teammates.
"This can happen and it can happen again. You've got good cars. You've got good drivers. It can happen between teammates because they're competitive and both of them are wanting to win a race. We love that in both guys."
Busch avoided a group of reporters and ignored questions from the individuals who approached him. Hamlin, though, stood outside the hauler and answered every question that was asked of him.
The main issue, Hamlin said, was he felt he could use the entire racetrack in his position as the race leader. Hamlin had started to lose the handling on his car and had a bad corner when Busch had a good run at the same time, which allowed the 18 car to close quickly.
But since Busch didn't have the outside lane yet, Hamlin wasn't eager to suddenly pull over.
"I told him my job as the leader is to do everything I can to win that race," Hamlin said. "And this race in specific is a much different race than what a points race is – and I think he understands that now from my standpoint.
"I felt like if Kyle would have had position on the outside, then I definitely should have given him the lane. But I basically just took the air off. And like he said up there (in the hauler), he was just dumb and didn’t check up. It’s just one of those things."
And what about Busch's radio comments threatening to kill Hamlin?
"Well, I mean, that's Kyle in the moment," Hamlin said, unfazed. "He's said worse things about me, I'm sure, at other times."
Gibbs said the drivers watched the replay and had a "good discussion" about what happened.
"I think what was real good was both of them wanted to talk it out," Gibbs said. "We talked it out. ... I think we're ready to go race the 600 and race as teammates."
Said Hamlin of the chat between teammates: "Kyle is fiery at the beginning and calmed right down at the end. I think that's just his personality. ... It was the old Kyle for a little while. Then the new Kyle came and met with us."
The most important thing to Hamlin was to not let the disagreement affect the positive chemistry between the Nos. 11 and 18 teams, which have worked well together and have turned into two of the best teams in the sport.
"I understand how important it is for team morale," Hamlin said. "When two teams skirmish with each other or the two drivers don't like talking to each other, all you do is go backward. There's no doubt about it.
"Right now, I feel like he has a championship-winning team and I have a championship-winning team. Our wheels are moving right now; we don't need to put the brakes on. Especially an incident in a race that doesn't matter anyway."
Last season's Sprint All-Star Race was one of the best races of the entire Sprint Cup season.
Can tonight's encore live up to the hype?
Chat here about all of tonight's activities, including the burnout contest, the Sprint Showdown, the fan vote and the Sprint All-Star Race itself.
Our predictions, by the way: Jeff Burton wins the Sprint Showdown, Carl Edwards wins the fan vote and Jimmie Johnson – yes, Jimmie Johnson – takes home the oversized check.
Tip: Make sure the auto-refresh box is checked so you can see live comments from other fans as they pop up.
Kevin Harvick has signed a "multiyear" contract extension to remain at Richard Childress Racing, where he has spent his entire Cup career.
Some had speculated that Harvick would split from RCR after this season – particularly after sponsor Shell Pennzoil announced it was leaving to join Penske Racing – but Harvick ultimately elected to stay.
Harvick currently leads the Sprint Cup point standings – a remarkable comeback from last year, in which he struggled to a 19th-place points finish and had only nine top-10 finishes.
But he already has nine top-10s this season – a series high – and has been the most consistent driver.
"It's been an incredible turnaround," Harvick said. "Our goal is to race for championships every year. Obviously last year, we didn't do that, but we feel like we've made the right changes and hopefully we can continue going forward with the performance."
Childress said the No. 29 team was talking to "three or four" potential sponsors, but had no commitments yet. The search for a company to replace Shell will continue for now, but RCR can hope things will take care of themselves if Harvick keeps up his current pace.
"We've got a lot of things coming the rest of the year and hopefully we'll just get better as the year goes," Childress said. "We want to run for that championship. I want to walk on that stage...in Vegas."
That this day would come seemed like a longshot when Harvick's team slumped last summer and the driver inferred in an ESPN interview that it was time for a change.
"We were both frustrated," Harvick said Saturday. "We both want the same things. Sometimes we butt heads a little bit. Sometimes, similar people get frustrated. ... We both want to achieve the same goals."
Kurt Busch was awarded the pole for Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race without completing a lap, thanks to heavy rains at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch was scheduled to go out first in qualifying, but the cancelation meant the qualifying order becomes the starting lineup.
"My boat had the fastest lap," Busch joked.
Told he'll get a pole trophy, Busch looked at the media and said, "Swwwweet."
Joey Logano will start second and said he was disappointed to miss out on the unusual qualifying format, which involves a pit stop.
"I was kind of looking forward to being able to do that, but oh well," he said.
The complete starting lineup:
Remember the 2007 All-Star race, when brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch wrecked one another?
Older brother Kurt recalled that race on Friday, saying he and Kyle were at odds for more than six months after the crash.
"I was over it the next week," Kurt said. "It's tough when it's for a million bucks. ... To me, it wasn't really that big of a deal. It seemed more a stinger for Kyle. We can chalk that up to youth."
Kurt said the rift between the brothers lasted until Thanksgiving that year, when their grandmother got them together and said, "Alright boys, you need to get back to your normal selves now."
"It was fine at Thanksgiving and Christmas after that," Kurt said. "It's just one of those moments when brothers have to test each other and neither one of us wanted to back down. In the end, it made us stronger together."
With a record 1.1 million votes already cast, Sprint has announced the top five in the fan vote for Saturday night's All-Star race.
One of the five drivers (who are not currently qualified for the race) will have the opportunity to make the race based on winning the vote:
Will it be an outright popularity contest with a Carl Edwards victory? Will it be a social media campaign by Allmendinger or Sadler? Will Ambrose win with the Australia vote?
The final result should be interesting.
When Denny Hamlin's No. 11 team won the Pit Crew Challenge last week, Hamlin's mother, girlfriend and Joe Gibbs Racing's pit crew coach each tweeted the same thing: "All we do is win!"
That's apparently a popular saying for the 11 team, a group whose confidence is growing weekly ("All We Do Is Win" is currently a popular hip-hop song by D.J. Khaled).
But when Hamlin showed up at the track on Friday, he completed only two laps before his engine blew up. Asked about the "All We Do Is Win" tweets, Hamlin only cautiously embraced it.
After all, the level-headed Hamlin knows NASCAR has a way of humbling those who get too comfortable at the top.
"I think it's just a confidence thing," he said. "You can't get too cocky in this sport, because obviously this is where it'll put you – right here with a blown motor and no practice.
"Our team's on a high right now. Everything's clicking really, really well. It's just one of those things where we're living in the moment."
Regardless, the 11 team has reason to crow lately. Hamlin has already won three races this season – one shy of matching his single-year career high – and is fifth in points despite undergoing major knee surgery during the season.
So is Hamlin more confident than ever? You bet.
"I think truthfully there's only about five guys who know they can win every single week," he says. "(Everybody) says they know they can, (and) hey, all the guys you talk to who don't (say they can) are probably lying to you. But truthfully, it's very hard.
"Some guys have better racetracks than others. For me, it was the same way. I knew when I reached good racetracks, I could win at those tracks. I didn't necessarily have the confidence when I went to Texas or Darlington or Homestead. Now it seems like every racetrack I go to, I really do feel like we can win. That's a big boost for myself."
During the first few years of Hamlin's career, he was only a serious threat on two types of tracks: short-tracks and triangles (of course, Pocono is the only triangle).
Because he came from Late Models and rose through the ranks to Cup racing quickly, Hamlin didn't get the experience on bigger ovals like other drivers did by spending a couple seasons in Nationwide, Trucks or ARCA.
"There's no mile-and-a-half or two-mile tracks in the Late Model series," Hamlin said. "When I got thrown into this car, basically it was like, 'Here's a mile-and-a-half, this is how we think you should drive it.' I had no idea how to race on these big tracks. And really, realistically, it's taken three years for me to kind of figure that out."
Now he has, and now he's confident. But when it comes to the line between confident and cocky, Hamlin is erring on the side of caution for now.
If anything about Kyle Busch has changed, it's that his wallet is a lot lighter than it used to be.
Busch started a Camping World Truck Series team before the season, and it seemed like a great idea at the time – the Miccosukee Indian tribe was on board to sponsor one of his trucks, and it appeared that a variety of other sponsors could step up for funding.
But Miccosukee got out of NASCAR and other funding has been scarce. So instead, the primary sponsor at Kyle Busch Motorsports has been Kyle Busch.
Busch said Friday that he's funding a percentage of KBM that is "far above (the) majority."
"It's pretty much everything," he said.
Yes, there's some help from Toyota and parts from Joe Gibbs Racing and an associate sponsor here and there.
But "as far as everything else goes, that's all out of my pocket," he said.
Talk about a passion project.
This wasn't exactly what Busch signed up for, and he's made that clear. He wasn't planning to get rich, but at least hoped the team would pay for itself.
Instead, the numbers in his bank account are shrinking.
"Is it painful? Yeah," he said. "You work your whole life to make the money you make. I'm not saying I'm throwing it away, but to see it all go away, it's unfortunate."
Busch is having to dip deep into the millions he has from Sprint Cup racing to pay for the Truck team. Now, let's not kid ourselves – the dude has plenty of cash right now.
But what if a day comes when the money stops flowing in?
"What it all boils down to is, what if I get hurt?" he said. "If I get hurt and can't go forward, yeah, there's disability (insurance). But I don't need to put my family in that kind of position. That's the thing that's a bad idea. I just gotta stay healthy and keep going."
If Busch is more worried about his health than before, will it change the way he drives?
We often hear professional athletes say it's "Not about the money."
That changes for one weekend per year in the NASCAR world, when the Sprint All-Star Race comes to Charlotte. It's one event that's all about the money.
One million dollars, actually. That's nothing to sniff at, even for drivers who are already fabulously wealthy.
Anyway, the race should be pretty good (considering this was the race that was the catalyst for the double-file restart rule last season) and one driver will go home happy.
Keep checking back here for updates, analysis and a live chat on race night.
The schedule for the weekend (all times are Eastern):
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