Winner-take-all approach always means thrills

All-star games in some sports leave a bit to be desired.

Defense is but a rumor when the NBA and NHL put on their midseason exhibitions, and the Pro Bowl is played among those "healthy" enough to actually take the flight to Honolulu.

Baseball's All-Star Game at least determines home-field advantage for the World Series, so now that it won't end in a tie, there's at least something on the line. None of them, though, offers $1 million to the winner, which is what sets the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge apart.

That's no guarantee of an exciting race, mind you, but it's as close to a guarantee as there is in sports that drivers will take more chances than in a usual race. And, over the years, that has led to some thrilling moments.

"I'm looking forward to the All-Star race," Mark Martin said recently. "It's always great to take a week off of point racing and just go out there and shoot for the win. Second means nothing in a race like this, so you can just go for it all. Last year, we were able to do just that and we got one of the coolest wins of my career. It was a really special night for this team, and hopefully we'll have a chance to go out and do that again. I love racing at Lowe's Motor Speedway and I've always enjoyed the All-Star race, so that combined with the truck race on Friday should make for a great weekend of racing."

Although teams can't do much different with their cars for the race because of the nature of NASCAR's rules, the drivers can enter the event with a totally different mind-set. And that's why sparks have been known to fly.

"The All-Star race is a lot of fun. It's pretty cool to go out there and really have nothing to lose," said Matt Kenseth, a former winner and a Roush Racing teammate of Martin's. "You don't have to worry about the points or anything like that. It's pretty much go all-out and try to win the thing and don't worry about salvaging a second-place or a top-five or something like that.

"One of my favorite moments in NASCAR was a couple of years ago when we won this race. I had a great a time battling Ryan [Newman] over the final laps, and we ended up on top. It was a great night for all of the guys on the team, and we had a blast celebrating on the stage afterwards."

For Robbie Reiser, it's just a fun week to be Kenseth's crew chief. His team competed in a pit stop competition earlier in the week, and Saturday's race will be another chance for his crew to gain some attention.

"Saturday night is really a spot for our team to showcase our talent as a group," Reiser said. "We've been running really well lately, and it would be nice to go get that winner's purse on Saturday night, which is really what this week is all about; it's that all-or-nothing approach that the teams take this weekend that [makes] it special."

Kyle Petty might be the one driver who doesn't consider this weekend an "all-star race" because he feels that's the case on a weekly basis as the same core group of drivers competes for victories. In team sports, obviously, that isn't the case.

But the fact the race is in Charlotte, N.C., which is considered the sport's hub, makes it different in that family and friends can attend easily. He said the All-Star Challenge is a much-needed break in the schedule.

"It's something different, and it's exciting. The fans love it, and you'll see 150,000 fans at the track this weekend," said Petty, who will compete in the Nextel Open for drivers not automatically eligible for the main event. "This is one of the most exciting races of the season for fans.

"The drivers, well, we just hold on. It's always a wild night for us. It's fun to be a part of. Hopefully, through the fans' votes, I can be a part of it. We're going to try to win the Open, but we're still hoping for a lot of votes."

Fans can vote one driver into the Challenge, and Petty is hoping to get in on votes as a fundraiser for the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Others, though, realize racing their way into the field might be their only hope.

"It's an all-or-nothing race, pretty much like the whole evening," said rookie Reed Sorenson of the Open. "Only the winner of the Nextel Open advances to the All-Star event, and everyone out there wants to be in that race."

That was evident last year when Brian Vickers gave Mike Bliss a tap on the last lap of the Open that sent Bliss sliding through the grass as Vickers went on to win. Bliss isn't in Cup racing this year, but his crew chief, Robert "Bootie" Barker, remembers how things ended up for his team.

"Vickers was going for the win in a race where points weren't involved, and he did what he felt he had to do," Barker said. "I'm OK with that. I understand that. The money you can win in the All-Star race is an awfully big carrot to dangle in front of a driver.

"What I didn't like, and what I still don't agree with, is flat-out wrecking somebody to win. That's what happened. We got wrecked, plain and simple."

Barker said a finish where the two had rubbed side by side would have been racing, as opposed to his view on how Vickers won.

"To me, the difference is in the etiquette. I use the analogy of a boxer. A boxer can use his elbows and his head a little bit to gain an advantage on his opponent, and that's cool," Barker said. "It's part of the game. What's not part of the game, or what I feel shouldn't be a part of the game, is a blatant shot below the belt. Regardless of the circumstances or how much money's at stake, I honestly wouldn't want my driver to win a race that way."

Vickers, though, doesn't sound as if he plans to alter his approach -- which is what many fans hope for, whether they're sitting in the stands on watching on TV.

"First place is the only thing that matters," Vickers said of the Open. "Second pays nothing, and there are no points on the line. It's winner-take-all."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com