No matter how you slice it, this year's running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (7:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Charlotte Motor Speedway promises plenty of action and unbridled speed as 22 drivers vie for the checkers and a payout that could have them singing a merry tune all the way to the bank.
The annual non-points race is known for its non-stop action and the mad dash to the checkered flag. Of course, that is fueled by the $1 million payout the victor receives.
However, that's not all the winner could potentially take to the bank. This year, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Charlotte Motor Speedway have added a special incentive for drivers to run at the front of the pack the entire race. If a driver wins all five segments of the all-star race, he or she will take home an additional $1 million.
Although the race doesn't have any direct implications on the points standings, the possible $2 million payout is just one of many reasons drivers find the event enticing.
"[The race] means a lot. Now, it's got a million more reasons if you're able to win all the segments," said Jimmie Johnson, last year's race winner and one of only three drivers to win the event three times. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt are the other two.
Though it's probably not the primary thought going through most drivers' minds while circling the track, the evening race should allow teams to better gauge how their car's setup will handle the Charlotte track and evening temperatures during the Coca-Cola 600 the following week and make adjustments.
"It's fun to race without points and that sets you up for a nice Memorial (Day) weekend and a good starting point with your race car," said Johnson.
Johnson and Gordon, both of whom will be in the starting field, will be joined by 20 other drivers. Seventeen of their competitors have already been determined: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Tony Stewart.
In order to qualify for the race a driver must have won a NASCAR Sprint Cup points race in 2012 or 2013, have won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in the last 10 years, have won the championship in the last 10 years, finish in the top two in the 40-lap Sprint Showdown or receive the most Sprint Fan Votes.
The Sprint Showdown will be run immediately prior to the all-star race on Saturday night with the top-two finishers transferring over to the main event. The final entrant in the race, the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote who finished the Showdown with a car deemed "raceable," won't be known until he or she is announced during driver introductions. Only drivers that haven't already qualified for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race are eligible to receive votes and participate in the Showdown.
Drivers who have yet to qualify for the all-star event include Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In 2008, Kahne became the only driver in the event's history to make the field via fan vote and go on to win the race. To make the story even better, Kahne and his team used the knowledge they gathered during the all-star race to put the car back in Victory Lane one week later in the Coca-Cola 600.
The meaning of being voted into the event by fans isn't lost on the drivers.
"Obviously our sport revolves around the fans. We talk about it all the time. Without them, there would be no NASCAR," said Truex, who was voted into the race by the fans in 2005. "To get voted in by the fans was one of the coolest things I've ever had happen to me in my whole career."
Unfortunately, he wasn't as successful in his race as Kahne was -- he finished 16th out of 22.
The number of laps and breakdown of segments remain unchanged from last year, when it was changed to a 90-lap affair with five segments. The first four segments are 20 laps each, with a final 10-lap dash to the cash.
How the cars line up for the final segment, however, has changed. Last year the winners of the first four segments were guaranteed to start in the first four positions for the final 10 laps, regardless of how they finished the penultimate segment.
This year, there will a mandatory four-tire pit stop between the fourth and fifth segments. Prior to entering pit road for the stops, the cars will be repositioned based on the average finishing position in the first four segments, thus further amplifying the importance of running near the front of the pack throughout the race. The order in which the cars return to the track after their four-tire pit stops will determine how they line up for the fifth and final segment.
The new rules should provide more quality on-track action with drivers fighting throughout the race to stay at the front or near the front of the pack, as well as making pit road strategy more integral to the overall outcome of the race.
"[NASCAR] did a good job at coming up with a format this year that is going to be more conducive to better racing," said Joey Logano, who won last June's Pocono race to qualify for the all-star event. "This year, the big question will be pit strategy and when to come in, when you take tires and such."