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Marquee stop for leading men

Gordon and Johnson are not only 1-2 in the Nextel Cup standings, but also stellar at Lowe's, the site of Saturday's All-Star Challenge.

May 18, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.C. — The Nextel Cup series takes a break with its All-Star Challenge on Saturday night, but that's not likely to slow Hendrick Motorsports' momentum.

The 80-lap event features 21 stock car drivers racing for a $1-million first prize, but no championship points. The race also serves as a warm-up for the Coca-Cola 600 here May 27.

Both are run at the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway oval here in suburban Charlotte -- friendly confines for the Chevrolets of Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Qualifying is scheduled today.

Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, is the two-time and defending winner of the All-Star race. He also had won four consecutive Cup races at Lowe's until Kasey Kahne broke the streak with victories in the track's two Cup races last year in his Evernham Motorsports Dodge.

Gordon, meanwhile, has four Cup victories at the speedway and is tied with the late Dale Earnhardt for the most All-Star wins with three.

The Hendrick drivers have been dominant again this year. Gordon, the four-time series title winner, has won three of the last four races and leads the Cup standings.

Johnson has four wins and is second in points.

Gordon, who last month passed Earnhardt in lifetime Cup victories -- and now is alone in sixth place with 78 -- also could pass Earnhardt's All-Star record and become the only four-time winner.

But it's the $1 million that draws the most attention.

"It's not a points race and I certainly think that makes everybody a little bit more aggressive, but when the purse is that large, you also take on the mind-set of a points race because you want to win," Johnson said.

NASCAR tweaked the race again this year in hopes of making it more exciting and easier to follow.

There will be four 20-lap segments, with an optional pit stop after the first. There will be a 10-minute break after the second segment in which teams will be allowed to work on their cars.

A mandatory pit stop is scheduled after the third segment, setting up the final 20-lap dash to the finish.

The last segment's lineup will be determined by the order in which the drivers leave pit road. There will be no inversion of the field as in previous years.

The field includes drivers who won Cup races in 2006 and so far this year, drivers chosen by owners whose teams won during that span, Cup champions of the last 10 years and winners of the All-Star race over the last decade.

Besides Gordon, Johnson and Kahne, this year's drivers are Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Casey Mears, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers.

They'll be joined by the drivers who finish first and second in the Nextel Open, a 40-lap race -- broken into two 20-lap segments -- that precedes the All-Star race.

In addition, one driver voted in by fans also will compete in the All-Star race. He'll be announced after the Nextel Open.

Mears got into the All-Star race because this year he took over the No. 25 Hendrick car driven last year by Vickers, who won the fall race at Talladega, Ala.

Vickers, now with the Red Bull Toyota team, also qualified himself with that victory.

"It's exciting because nobody's thinking about points," said Mears. "It's all about the win."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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