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Drivers to watch

Check out a short list of favorites for Saturday's Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C.:

Kurt Busch:
At this point last season, he was the only driver
to win two races and finished 2003 with four wins; had been in
the top five in the Nextel Cup points standings for five
straight weeks, but plummeted four spots after finishing 31st in
the Chevy American Revolution 400 at Richmond International
Raceway; it was his third straight finish outside the top 20,
but he has been among the top 10 in the standings for 10
straight race weeks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
Became the first rookie to win this event,
when it was known as The Winston in 2000; became the first
three-time winner in the Nextel Cup Series this season when he
led 115 laps and won the Chevy American Revolution 400; the
three victories tie his career high, set in 2001; increased his
lead atop the points standings to 40 over Jimmie Johnson and is
first for the fourth consecutive week; leads the circuit with
$3,252,600 - no other driver has more than $2.5 million.

Jeff Gordon:
Had won consecutive races and was third after the
final restart last week at Richmond, but was nearly put into the
wall on turn 3 by Tony Stewart and finished sixth. "We're
seeing it every weekend and you'd think a guy getting abuse by
the media and the drivers would start thinking a little bit
more," Gordon said of Stewart. "He had a much faster car,
fresher tires, got inside of me and the position was his and he
just drove straight into me and put me into the wall, about put
himself into the wall;" leads the Nextel Cup Series with nine
top-10 finishes this year and has three victories in the
all-star event, tying him with the late Dale Earnhardt for the
most all-time.

Kevin Harvick:
Finished 25th at Richmond for his second-worst
performance of the season and dropped two slots in the points
standings to eighth; has made three appearances in the all-star
race, with his best finish being seventh last season; has been
among the top 10 in the standings for six consecutive weeks

Jimmie Johnson:
Delighted his owners, Hendrick Motorsports, and
primary sponsor, Lowe's -- both are located close to Concord --
by winning this event last season and following it up the next
week with a victory here in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600;
was runner-up at Richmond last week, but fell from 25 to 40
points behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took the checkered
flag. "I think there was more pressure on us coming back for the
fall race at Lowe's last year than this one," Johnson said.
"This is a new year and new circumstances, so you wipe the slate
clean and start over."

Matt Kenseth:
First career Winston Cup victory was recorded in
the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 here on May 28, 2000; that season he
edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year honors; was
edged by Earnhardt last week and finished fifth at Richmond for
his fifth top-five finish of the season; the 2002 Winston Cup
champion is fourth in the standings and has been among the top
10 for 46 straight weeks, which is the longest current streak in
the Nextel Cup Series; is one of just three drivers to lead the
standings this season as he was first for four straight weeks;
has driven in the all-star event three times, with his best
showing being third place in 2002.

Bobby Labonte:
The surging Corpus Christi, Texas resident was
third at Richmond for his fourth straight top-10 finish; that
performance moved him up to seventh in the standings with 1,430
points. "We've had a string of good runs lately and that's what
it takes to contend for a championship," Labonte said. "We're
coming together as a team, and we just need to stay consistent,
and the points will take care of themselves;" The 2000 Winston
Cup champion won the all-star event in 1999 after finishing second
the previous two years.

Ryan Newman:
Became the second rookie to win the all-star race
in 2002 and was eliminated in the second segment last year when he
was tapped by Sterling Martin in a battle for position; led the
Winston Cup Series with eight wins in 2003 but is seeking his first
victory this season; has two poles this year, nine shy of his 2003
total; two of his poles last season came here in the Coca-Cola 600
in May and the UAW-GM Quality 500 in October.

Elliott Sadler:
One of just four drivers to be among the top 10
in the standings each week this season and increased his lead over
11th-place rookie Kasey Kahne to 89 points after finishing 12th last
week at Richmond; is making his fourth appearance in the all-star
event and has never finished in the top 10. "The all-star race can
be compared to a cage match," Sadler said. "There's no holding back
or waiting for the right moment. Each segment is very short and the
drivers have to work hard and fast."

Tony Stewart:
The agressive 2002 Winston Cup champion should not
count on receiving a birthday present from Jeff Gordon when he turns
33 on Thursday; Stewart, who drew the ire of veteran Rusty Wallace
after the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, nearly wrecked
Gordon's Chevrolet Monte Carlo with 46 laps remaining in the Chevy
American Revolution 400; although Stewart has been cited for his
fiery nature in the past, he did not accept blame for the incident
with Gordon. "There were a lot of guys with body rubs. If contact
gets you a suspension for a race or two, we'll have only 18 cars
next week," Stewart said; climbed three spots in the standings to
fifth place after finishing fourth at Richmond; has three top-10
finishes in five starts in the all-star race, including a runner-up
showing in 1999.