5 things we learned at the All-Star
Kurt Busch never dominated but he capitalized when given the opportunity
Despite his All-Star woes, Jimmie Johnson is still the favorite next week
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the people's favorite, and his team are in free fall
Who says practice doesn't make perfect? NASCAR's annual showdown under the lights, the All-Star Race, was a million-dollar exhibition Saturday night that left fans on their feet during a thrilling, 10-lap shootout to the finish. But in between some classic entertainment, we got a sneak preview at some of the favorites to win one of NASCAR's crown jewels next weekend: the Coca-Cola 600.
Here are five things we can take away from NASCAR's One Hot Night under the lights:
1. Don't forget about Kurt Busch.
The forgotten man as of late, Penske's No. 1 title threat reminded everyone why he was the trendy pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson back in March. Leading the final eight green-flag laps, Busch was never the dominant car in the second half of the race but capitalized when carnage unfolded in front of him. As teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin tangled, the No. 2 car came to life and disposed of both in charging to the older Busch's first All-Star Race win. "The Miller Lite Dodge was money when it counted," he said. "Big, bold moves is what I was going to go for, and it paid off."
Busch capped a picture-perfect day for car owner Roger Penske, who came to Charlotte fresh off watching his Indycar team take three of the top four spots for the Indy 500, including winning the pole with Helio Castroneves. That puts him in great position next week to be the first owner to win both prestigious trophies on the same day.
2. We've got another teammate rivalry on our hands.
One month after the Jimmie Johnson-Jeff Gordon flareup, Hamlin and Busch had one all their own. While battling for the lead during that final shootout, the two tangled coming off turn 2 as Hamlin blocked Busch's move to the outside. That put the No. 18 in the wall, causing damage that cut a tire and ended Busch's day just a few laps later.
Never one to hide his temper, Busch threatened to kill Hamlin on the radio before a heated post-race meeting in the hauler with owner Joe Gibbs presiding. Busch seemed none too happy afterwards, while Hamlin emerged from that with a "there's nothing to see here" attitude in an attempt to diffuse tension.
"That's Kyle in the moment," Hamlin said of his teammate's radio threats. "He's said worse things about me other times."
My take? Yeah, Hamlin ran him up the racetrack a bit. But with a million dollars on the line, wouldn't you do the same thing? The All-Star Race lets drivers get a little more aggressive, and Hamlin did what it took to try to win it. When Busch takes a few days to calm down and think this over, you'd like to think cooler heads will prevail ... but with the mercurial Busch, you never know.
3. Jimmie Johnson may be the man to beat next Sunday.
Some will view Saturday as the latest in a long line of recent mistakes by the reigning four-time champ. Dominating up until the final 10-lap segment, Johnson dropped him from first to third in a mandatory pit stop that cost him the track position he needed to contend. Struggling in traffic, he wound up spinning through the infield grass while fighting with Hamlin back in the pack and wound up 13th.
"Kept my foot to the floor and hoped that I made it off the turn and I didn't," he said of that final wreck. "It turned around on me."
But don't be fooled by the finish. Without the exhibition quirks, Johnson would have run away from the field as his team has the setup nailed at its favorite track. Johnson is my pick to win the 600 in a runaway.
4. The No. 88 is in free fall mode.
Nothing seems to be going Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s way these days. After qualifying was rained out, the team drew the 18th and final spot for the race and struggled all night with track position. A total non-factor, he came home 12th with a car that struggled to show speed and continued to leave Earnhardt's confidence waning. That leaves NASCAR's Most Popular Driver a rather unpopular mess as the slump that has him fading from Chase contention grows deeper.
5. Keep an eye on Martin Truex Jr.
Only four months into his new gig at Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex is making his boss' stint in the No. 55 (now 56) Toyota seem like a distant memory. Fresh off a 12th-place finish that moved him into a Chase position, he won the Showdown -- NASCAR's "B" Main for drivers not already qualified for the main event -- then charged to second in the All-Star Race. It's the type of confidence-builder that'll serve him well as the organization looks to defend its Coca-Cola 600 win next weekend. "We felt good coming into here that we could run well," he said. "I feel like our car was a little bit better for the long runs, which will be good for next week. We'll use a lot of what we learned here this weekend for the 600." Truex hasn't won since Dover in the spring of 2007. But if you're looking for a darkhorse next week, he's as good as any; after all, teammate David Reutimann took home the trophy in a rain-shortened 600 last May.