Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star race would be a perfect time for Denny Hamlin to let his aching back heal without losing any points for the championship.
Don’t count on it.
Although he’s still trying to recover from a fractured vertebra, Hamlin not only plans to drive in the nonpoints race, he wants to win it.
“I want to win, so I’m going to do everything I can and be as aggressive as I would any other race,” he said.
Hamlin is one of 19 drivers who already have qualified for the winners-only race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Three more – the top-two finishers in the 40-lap Sprint Showdown qualifying race and the winner of the fan vote – will complete the starting lineup.
Since the race is worth at least $1 million to the winner and it doesn’t count toward the Sprint Cup championship, drivers generally are willing to make more chances in the 90-lap event. For a driver like Hamlin, who already has missed four races while recovering from the injury, the possible reward outweighs the risk.
“Usually in the All-Star race, the closer up front you are the less out of trouble you are, so I’m going to try to do everything I can to be up front and if not it will just be a good test session weekend (for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte eight days later),” Hamlin said. “Really if I didn’t feel like I was going to be 100 percent and be able to go for it with a lot of confidence then I wouldn’t run it, but I was very encouraged after looking at the last scan that the progress that I’ve made that they were comfortable that I could take a hit here or there.”
The drivers who already are in the field as race winners from 2012 and 2013 include: Hamlin, David Ragan, Jimmie Johnson, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, as well as former series champion Kurt Busch and former All-Star winner Mark Martin.
The race will be broken into four 20-lap segments and a final 10-lap sprint. The winner of the 10-lapper will earn at least $1 million. If a driver wins all five segments, track owner Bruton Smith personally will pay a $1 million bonus.
The starting lineup for the final 10-lap segment will be based on the average finish of the first four segments.
“Anytime they put that much money in front of anybody it’s going to cause things to rise to another level,” Harvick said.
“Take the points away from that and you really have some unique scenarios that come up. I think adding the bonus for winning all five segments is really going to add a twist to the event as well, especially for the driver who wins the first segment. They’re going to be giving it all they have to try and win the remaining segments to collect the additional $1 million bonus.”
“It’s always fun when you know there is really nothing on the line but to win. If you do, then usually there is a big check waiting for you at the end so that gives you some bragging rights and a lot of money.”
Ragan won two weeks ago at Talladega, Ala., to move out of the Showdown and into the main event.
“We were already kind of mapping out what our strategy was going to be to get to the Showdown, what we were going to do, consider it a test session for the Coke 600, so now we’ve got to scrap that plan and get ready for the segments,” he said. “I don’t even know what the segments are for the all-star Race this year. I’m probably not the only one, but I need to look into that.”
The Showdown will include drivers like Danica Patrick, Martin Truex Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Jeff Burton, Aric Almirola and Bobby Labonte.
“I think you’re going to see all-out racing all night long, which is a great thing,” Truex said. “Obviously we hope to be a part of that.
“I think honestly the new way they’re doing it this year is probably one of the best they’ve had as far as, again, having that incentive to win all of ‘em. Guys are going to be after it.”
Gordon has had his issues with a sore back earlier in his career. But like Hamlin, it won’t keep him from trying to win Saturday night.
“The All-Star is kind of a ‘win-or-nothing’ scenario, and that’s not the case on other race weekends,” Gordon said. “I’ve always approached it being as aggressive as I possibly can. We push hard trying to win every race, and this weekend is no different.”
Bad backs and all.