Thursday, May 20, 2004
No points, just pride and cash on line
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com
Elliott Sadler wasn't even born yet, having entered this world in 1975, but Dale Jarrett is old enough to remember one of the most famous mantras of the hippies in the '60s.
"Let it all hang out" was right up there with "groovy" and "far out, man."
Yet letting it all hang out is exactly what both Robert Yates Racing drivers plan to do in Saturday's Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway in suburban Charlotte.
The Challenge is basically the same format as its predecessor, The Winston, only with a new name. But the reason fans and drivers like it is because, well, everyone can let it all hang out on the racetrack. There's no need to be concerned about how the finish will affect you or your team in the standings, as this is a non-points race.
As a result, drivers can be as aggressive as they want to be, while still under the guise of maintaining safe racing.
"It's hard to put into words how exciting that particular race is," Jarrett said. "I get excited just thinking about it. It is a race made up of winners and it's just fun. There's nothing involved except trying to win, the prestige of winning and the trophy.
"Obviously it pays a lot of money -- but that's the least of our concerns. The biggest thing is trying to get the respect and the acknowledgment of winning this event because to do that you have to beat the best. I've been fortunate enough to finish this event second twice (2000 to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2001 to Jeff Gordon) but nobody remembers who finishes second so that is one stat I would love to change for me and for the No. 88 UPS Team."
Even though he won't earn any points, Jarrett needs a big boost nonetheless in Saturday night's exhibition event. He's struggling in the standings (17th place), and has been knocked out of contention due to crashes in the last two editions of The Winston.
One thing that will be in Jarrett's favor is the final segment of the three-pronged Challenge. In previous years, the last portion featured just a 10-car field. But in Saturday night's finale of the so-called "Survival of the Fastest," all cars and drivers entered in the night's activities will qualify for the 20-lap shootout.
"I think that's a good thing having all the cars in the final segment," Jarrett said. "I think it's fair that everybody is around for the whole thing. Seldom do you know exactly what's going to happen in that race, but I'm sure the crashes we've had the last couple of years have helped decide that issue -- that we needed to make sure we had enough cars running at the end. It's always a great race and it's a race for winners. You can't get a more competitive race than that."
The three-segment format breaks up what can oftentimes be mundane races during the course of the regular season. And without having to worry about points or standings, drivers can pretty much do whatever they want -- within the rules, of course -- to reach Victory Lane.
"It's a Saturday night shootout," Jarrett said. "It's where we all came from. It takes us back to our beginnings -- our roots in the sport because many of us started racing on a Friday or Saturday night.
"This is the wildest of Saturday nights anywhere. The fans have been there all weekend and getting prepared. The race doesn't start until 9 o'clock so by the time the race starts everybody is just keyed up. We're racing under the lights and even though it is nighttime, the lights just seem to make everything on the track more visible. And I think the fact that it is a night race just adds to the intensity of this type of race."
Jarrett has 13 Winstons under his belt, while Sadler has just five, with a best finish of 14th in his first-ever Winston in 1999. Currently in 10th-place in the Nextel Cup standings, Sadler is looking forward to finally earning a top-10 finish in the Challenge.
"The Challenge will prove to be one of the best races of the year," Sadler said. "Everyone wants to win and a lot of guys bring their newest bodies, chassis and motors to see if the research and development work at the shop is paying off.
"Sometimes you unload the car and you are hooked up and sometimes you unload and figure out you have a lot of work to do. This race is very different than other All-Star atmospheres in professional sports. Remembering who won the NFL Pro Bowl game or the NBA All-Star game may be tough but race fans always remember who wins our All-Star race."
But the Challenge isn't a race that only drivers get up for. Sadler's primary spotter on the No. 38 Ford, Brett Griffin, also can't wait to watch the events unfold Saturday night as he coaches and directs Sadler to what he hopes will be an eventual finish in Victory Lane.
"The All-Star race can be compared to a cage match," Griffin said. "There's no holding back or waiting for the right moment. Each segment is very short so the drivers have to work hard and fast.
"In the first segment they need to be cautiously aggressive. In the last two segments they have to let everything hang out. The guys will block, bump and do whatever it takes to get to the front. This race is all about bragging rights and big bucks. No one holds anything back. It's all about winning and not logging laps. Second is truly the first loser in this race whereas second on any given Sunday would be a great points day. Points don't count this weekend so it's all or nothing come show-time."
So, what's the key for Sadler and Jarrett to win their first Challenge on Saturday night?
The answer is simple, says Todd Parrott, Sadler's crew chief: pure speed.
"My advice to Elliott? Drive it like you stole it," Parrott deadpanned. "We are going there to win -- second place is the first loser in this one."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.