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Virtual Pit Reporter: News on top 25 Cup teams

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1) Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Lowe's announced on Monday a multiyear extension of its primary sponsorship of Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 48 Chevrolet driven by Johnson. Under the new agreement, Lowe's will continue its primary sponsorship of the team through the 2010 racing season. Johnson, 30, also signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports that keeps him behind the wheel through 2010. Financial terms were not disclosed. "I'm with the best team and the best sponsor in the sport," said Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif. "Since I started in Nextel Cup racing, my association with Lowe's and Hendrick Motorsports has been absolutely incredible. I couldn't be more proud of this relationship and look forward to continuing what we've started with the No. 48 Lowe's team." The relationship began in 2001 when Hendrick Motorsports selected Johnson, who at the time had never started a Nextel Cup race, to drive the new Lowe's-sponsored No. 48 Chevrolet. Now in the midst of its fifth full season, the team has posted unparalleled statistics since its inception, with 21 victories and four top-five points finishes. Along with crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 operation has already recorded three victories in 2006, marking its fifth consecutive multi-win season, and ranks first in Nextel Cup points after 11 of 36 events. The team has notched six top-five results and eight top-10 performances this season. "We believe this is the best combination in racing," said Robert Niblock, Lowe's chairman, president and CEO. "Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports are a key part of our marketing efforts and outreach to our employees. We are all proud to have someone like Jimmie carry the Lowe's name in NASCAR." Founded in 1984, Hendrick Motorsports has garnered nine NASCAR championships, including five at the elite Cup level. The No. 48 Lowe's team is one of five full-time teams now fielded by the organization across NASCAR's top two series. "Lowe's and Hendrick Motorsports have formed a terrific partnership for the past five years," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "Week after week, we're able to pair Jimmie Johnson, one of the most dynamic talents in our sport, with Lowe's, a respected and well-recognized brand throughout the world. It's a special relationship that we're extremely excited to continue." ... Johnson has competed in the All-Star race four times. He won it in 2003 and finished fifth last year. "It's really a lot of fun," Johnson said. "I think it's one of the few races where everybody can let their hair down. We are there learning and we can carry a lot of stuff from the All-Star weekend to the (Coca Cola) 600 weekend, but the points really aren't on the line and I think everybody has a lot of fun."
  • Last week: Johnson finished fourth at Darlington and remained first in the standings, moving to 93 points ahead of second-place Tony Stewart.
  • Etc.: Johnson believes the driver plays a key role in pit stops. "Depending on where your pit stall is you can hustle a little bit more," Johnson said. "If you're coming to stop in a certain zone that is being timed, once you cross that line you can really hustle the car because you're coming to a stop. Bringing the car into the pit box with speed is really important and helps the stop. If you have an opening in front of you or not or you're coming around a car, you really have to get the car pointed in the right direction so you're not in trouble. That slows down the stop a lot more than you think. If the team has a good eye on the car and it's coming in straight, they know the steps they need to make to be in position for the car to stop at them. If you have to turn around someone and get pointed out, they're almost dancing trying to follow the car and you can easily lose two or three seconds doing that."

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    2) Tony Stewart, No. 20 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: For Stewart, the All-Star Challenge represents the perfect test session. Unlike most test sessions that are lonely and monotonous, there's actual competition in the All-Star Challenge. And the incentive of a nice trophy augmented by an equally nice paycheck is not overlooked. "It sounds great," Stewart said of the $1 million first-place prize. "There are a lot of things I can do with a million dollars, and now that I own a race track (Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio), a lot of bills I could pay off, too." More important, it gives the teams and rivers a better idea of what to expect the following week in the Coca-Cola 600. "If your car is driving well, you're running for a million dollars," Stewart said. "But if your car isn't driving well, you're learning from that and applying it to the 600 instead. I've always looked at it as however your car is driving in the All-Star race is relatively true to how your car is going to drive in the 600. It's a really good test because it's really the only time we have to run at night in race conditions. It's as fun as Nextel Cup racing can be, and I think that shows. The fans obviously seem to like it." ... This is Stewart's eighth year in the Series and his eighth year in the All-Star Challenge at Charlotte. Stewart won The Winston Open during his rookie year in 1999 to advance into The Winston, where he finished a career-best second. Stewart won the first segment of the All-Star Challenge in 2004 and the second segment of The Winston in 2001.
  • Last week: Stewart finished 12th at Darlington. Etc: With other tracks seeking Nextel Cup races and NASCAR seeking new markets, is the All-Star Challenge still needed? "I don't think we need to add another point race to replace the All-Star race," Stewart said. "I think it's nice to dedicate a weekend to the race fans. We put on a race for them where we're not worried about points. We're all hanging it out every lap, instead of three-quarters of the way through the season, where some guys are hanging it out while others are points racing. It's good to have one evening where we all just get up on the wheel and put on a good show for the fans." ... Stewart will award country music superstar Vince Gill with the 2006 Academy of Country Music/The Home Depot Humanitarian Award during the 41st Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at 8 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday on CBS.

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    3) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Kenseth has scored four career victories at Lowe's Motor Speedway: the 2000 Coca-Cola 600, the 2004 All-Star Race and two Busch Series wins. In the past five All-Star events, Kenseth has completed all but one lap (429 of 430). Kenseth won $1,044,000 in prize money for winning the 2004 All-Star race, which remains the largest single-race purse that Kenseth has won in his career. "The All-Star race is a lot of fun," he said. "It's pretty cool to go out there and really have nothing to lose. 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 afterward."
  • Last week: Kenseth finished third at Darlington, his seventh top-10 finish in 2006. Six of the seven are top-fives. Kenseth scored his first victory of 2006 at California and has had nine top-15 finishes this season.
  • Etc.: Crew chief Robbie Reiser is preparing chassis number RK-317 for this weekend. "The All-Star week as a whole is just a different animal," Reiser said. "The Pit Crew Championship is on Wednesday night, and our guys are really looking forward to that. They do a great job all year, and it's nice that they have the spotlight for at least one night to showcase their talent. Then, Saturday night is really a spot for our team to showcase our talent as a group. 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 make it special."

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    4) Mark Martin, No. 6 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Martin is the defending winner of the All-Star race and will compete in his 17th straight All-Star event. He also won this race in 1998 and has five top-fives and six top-10s in it. He finished third in his first All-Star race, in 1990. "It's always great to take a week off of point racing and just go out there and shoot for the win," he said. "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. We've been able to run well at a lot of the tracks this year where we struggle, so if we can run that well at the tracks that we really like that are coming up, we should be pretty strong going into the summer. The team has done a great job with the cars this year, and it's really been fun driving cars like this each week that have a chance to run up front and compete for wins."
  • Last week: Martin finished eighth at Darlington to remain fourth in the standings.
  • Etc.: Crew chief Pat Tryson has prepared RK-231 for the All-Star, which was once the top car in Martin's fleet. It made its last start at Michigan last summer and finished third. It is nicknamed the "Batmobile" after running two different Batman-themed schemes. It finished in the top seven in all three of its races last year. "We had a great run in the All-Star last year, and we are looking forward to going back this year and trying to repeat as the winner," Tryson said. "The All-Star is a good event for the teams, as we don't have all the pressure of point racing, and they kind of make the night about the teams. We think we have a good car for the race and we are excited about getting back to Lowe's."

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    5) Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
  • This week: Earnhardt and the All-Star Challenge appear made for each other. In 2000, he became the first rookie to win it. "Winning the All-Star race was definitely a big moment in my career," Earnhardt said. "It's hard to beat the whole spectacle that goes into winning the All-Star race. There is a lot of money up for grabs -- over a million dollars -- but there is a lot of pride wrapped up in that winner's purse as well. I think you'll see a great race this year. It's going to be different with the new tire Goodyear and NASCAR has given us for Charlotte. It's a lot harder, a lot more slick, and it could make things interesting. I think you'll definitely see new strategies that you're not used to seeing in the All-Star race." ... In six All-Star races, Earnhardt has finished in the top-10 in all but one. He has four victories and a finishing average of 4.05 in 19 career starts in non-points-paying or All-Star type Nextel Cup races. He has finished first or second 11 times in 19 starts.
  • Last week: Earnhardt finished fifth at Darlington, and that elevated him to fifth in the standings.
  • Etc.: The team has twice won a million-dollar purse -- the defunct "No-Bull 5" program at Talladega in October 2001 and October 2002.

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    6) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Gordon has experienced many "firsts" at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but he has not visited Victory Lane at the 1.5-mile track since 2001. Gordon, who is tied with the late Dale Earnhardt for the most All-Star victories (three), will be driving a specially painted No. 24 DuPont Performance Alliance Chevrolet. The paint scheme will have the familiar "fire and flames" design, but the primary colors will be reversed. Along with three wins in this event, Gordon also has two Busch Series victories, four Nextel Cup wins and one Nextel Open victory at Lowe's. He won the first pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career at Lowe's in 1993 and secured his first victory in NASCAR's premier division the following year in the 600-miler. In 1995, he won all three segments en route to capturing his first victory in NASCAR's annual all-star event. "I've been fortunate to win this event three times," said Gordon. "It's a great format, it's under the lights, and it's all about winning. Nobody remembers who finished second. This race has produced some great memories for me. In 2001, we won the race in a backup car after wrecking on the first lap in the rain. To go from the 'low' of wrecking before we even completed a lap to the 'high' of winning in a backup car was incredible. It was an amazing sight to see all the teams from Hendrick Motorsports -- not just the DuPont team -- pitching in to prepare the backup car for the race." But Gordon's most memorable moment in the event occurred in 1995. "Winning all three segments in the Jurassic Park car is definitely the highlight," said Gordon, referring to the specially painted DuPont/Jurassic Park No. 24 car he raced that night. "Even though we won the first two segments, the last 10 laps are usually crazy -- and they were. On the restart, we were three-wide with Dale Earnhardt on the inside and Darrell Waltrip on the outside entering turn 3. I didn't think all three of us would make it through the corner, so I let off. As it turned out, those two got together and went into the turn 4 wall." Gordon has competed in 26 races at Lowe's Motor Speedway, scoring four victories and 15 top-10 finishes.
  • Last week: By finishing second at Darlington, Gordon jumped three positions in the standings, from ninth to sixth. Gordon ranked third in the point standings at this point one year ago, 124 points behind then point leader Jimmie Johnson. This year, he is 295 points behind Johnson, who again is leading.
  • Etc.: Gordon believes that Toyota entering the sport next season will have a major impact on all teams as they try to keep their key employees. "I think for the most part they're going to elevate the level of competition," Gordon said. "Right now there's some negative things going on because they're out there trying to steal a lot of people from teams to field good teams. It's also very natural and comes along with it, but a lot of teams aren't happy about that. I think the biggest challenge is just trying to break into a really hard-core based American sport that has a lot of American products in it. The reason why they're coming is because they broke into the sales market of it to sell a lot of their cars. I think that they have a right to be here, but I think they definitely have a tough road ahead of them, including getting the right teams and drivers. I would guess that they're probably going to come in and do it right and get as many good people as they can knowing it will take them a few hard years to get their program together and research what they need, and then they're going to go after a lot of the top teams."

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    7) Kyle Busch, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: If Busch were to win the All-Star Challenge, he would be the youngest driver to win it, at 21 years and 18 days old. Jeff Gordon set the record when he won it at age 23. "It's a night for the teams and crews to shine," Busch said. "It's a 'home race' with a lot of money and pride on the line. Teams will be aggressive because there are no points involved and it's usually pretty exciting for the fans. We didn't race our way in last year because we finished fourth in the qualifying races. We are in it this year because of the Phoenix win last November, so it takes some pressure off our team to know we are already in the show. ... I also thought the NEXTEL Open finish last year was exciting. I was running fourth and saw my teammate Brian Vickers and Mike Bliss go at it. I figured the wreck was about to happen and it could have been the difference of me winning the race because there was a potential for everyone in front of me to wreck -- that's how hard they were racing. They wrecked at the finish line, so 'BV' got the win and Bliss finished second by crossing the line sideways, Travis Kvapil was third and I was fourth. It could have been big, and I had a front-seat view to the whole thing."
  • Last week: Busch finished seventh at Darlington.
  • Etc.: Busch will test the No. 15 Chevy for Billy Ballew Motorsports on Thursday at Lowe's in preparation for Friday night's Quaker Steak and Lube 200. Busch is the defending champion of the event.

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    8) Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Dodge, Evernham Motorsports
  • This week: In two All-Star races, Kahne has started 16th and finished seventh in 2004 and started fifth and finished 16th last year, when he was involved in a crash. "There are no points on the line this weekend, so the pressure of the season and the Chase isn't there," Kahne said. "It's about having fun and racing for $1 million. There's no other racing like the All-Star Challenge. It's a unique format. There's a mandatory pit stop. There's an inversion. Then there's the final 20-lap shootout -- an all-out sprint. And it's all at night. There's also that $1 million out there for the winner. What more can you say?"
  • Last week: Kahne finished 21st at Darlington, his fourth finish of 21st or worse in 2006, all in the last six races. Kahne has dropped from a high of second in the point standings to eighth in those six races. He has scored six top-10 finishes in 2006 and has won two races in 2006, (Atlanta and Texas) both from the pole position. Kahne has scored seven top-15 finishes in the first 11 races in 2006. One year ago he ranked 15th in the point standings.
  • Etc.: Kahne won his third pole at Darlington in only four attempts last week.

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    9) Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: Harvick hopes to avoid the trouble that found him last year in the All-Star Challenge, when nearly half the field was taken out in a massive crash in the first segment. "I was very disappointed," Harvick said. "The biggest thing was that it was the car we were going to bring back the next week for the Coca-Cola 600. Everybody just goes for it, and that makes it pretty wild. Anytime you get crashed out early it's frustrating, but that's what this race has turned into. You just have to make sure you stay out of the big crash. I almost think the All-Star race has a little Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in it now. It's not a matter of if there is a crash, it's when. A lot of fans like that, so they get a great show. I'm not sure the racing is that great, but the spectacle is." Since his 2001 debut in the All-Star Challenge, Harvick saw steady improvements until the last two events left him with finishes of 22nd and 18th, respectively. In his three starts before 2004, he collected three top-three starts and two top-10 finishes.
  • Last week: Harvick plummeted four positions in the standings as a result of his 37th-place finish at Darlington.
  • Etc.: The team will race chassis No. 151 this weekend. This chassis was tested recently at Lowe's.

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    10) Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: In his 13 full seasons in the Cup Series, Burton has been in the All-Star Challenge nine times, and his best finish was fourth in 1998. He has two top-fives and four top-10s in the event. Burton won the 2003 Open, claiming the final transfer position for the All-Star event, where he went on to finish ninth. "With the small fuel cell NASCAR has mandated for Charlotte, the All-Star race will be more like the race when we come back the next weekend for the Coca-Cola 600," Burton said. "That's because the number of laps you will run in the All-Star race are going to be closer to the runs in the 600, and we haven't had that before. I think it's going to be much more advantageous as a test than we've ever had before. Really, your mentality has to do a lot with where you are with your car count at the shop. Do you feel like you have a bunch of good cars? Do you feel like if you lose a good car in the All-Star race is it going to be detrimental to you? If you feel like it is then you have to race accordingly because it is a big race, but you can't give away a really good car in a non-points race that you may need for a points race. To be honest, the money is great, but I have yet to run a race wondering how much money I was going to win. I've always wondered what the trophy was going to look like. If you get caught up in all money with the All-Star race, trying to do that can end up costing you much more than it will ever earn you."
  • Last week: Burton's ninth-place finish at Darlington, his fourth top-five finish in five races, moved him up to 10th in the standings. At this point last year Burton sat 18th in points, and he was 29th in points after 11 races in 2004.
  • Etc.: Burton will write a daily column throughout the Charlotte race weeks, which will be featured on www.rcrracing.com. The South Boston, Va., native will discuss his daily activities as well as those of his Cingular racing team as they prepare for and compete in the NASCAR All-Star Challenge Open and the Coca-Cola 600.

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    11) Casey Mears, No. 42 Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
  • This week: Mears has not fared too well in the Nextel Open. In his three starts in the event, Mears has finished 12th, 21st and sixth. But he hopes to change all that in 2006. Yet he is afraid there may be "a lot of early cautions with short runs right out of the gates (in the 30-lap, two-segment event). The guys are going to have to be careful."
  • Last week: Mears finished 17th at Darlington to drop out of the top 10. He is 15 points back of 10th-place Jeff Burton. "The car just wouldn't turn tonight," said Mears. "The team worked on the Texaco/Havoline Dodge all night. I'm proud of these guys, but we have some work to do to try and figure out how to make the cars turn better."
  • Etc.: Chip Ganassi Racing will be host to a memorial charity auction from 1 to 4 p.m. (EDT) May 25 at the race shop. All of the proceeds will go directly into the trust currently being set up for Bill Ellis' wife and children. Ellis, who died last month, joined the team in 2003 to work as a team fabricator. More than 200 items will be up for bid, including an autographed hood off one of Mears' cars.

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    12) Dale Jarrett, No. 88 Ford, Robert Yates Racing
  • This week: Jarrett's best finish in the All-Star race is second, in both 2000 and 2001. He has finished in the top 10 in seven of the 14 All-Star events he has competed in, including a sixth last year. "This is our weekend to kick back and have a good time while we're still competing," says Jarrett. "It's not as stressful as the weekends where we're worrying about points and all that but we're here to have a good time and put on a good show."
  • Last week: A few hours after confirming the reports that he would be driving for Toyota and Michael Waltrip in 2007, Jarrett drove the UPS Ford to a 24th-place finish at Darlington. "There was no in between with the car tonight," said Jarrett. "We started out where the car was sliding the nose in the corners, loose in the gas, to where it wouldn't turn at all. We were lucky to finish 24th."
  • Etc.: Doug Yates, Robert's son, said it was important to remind "everybody that we are fully committed to Dale Jarrett and UPS and Ford in carrying this thing out to the end of the year. It's sad because we've had a great time together, but we just need to make sure we remember all the good things and finish it off on a good note."

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    13) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: Hamlin will be competing in his first Nextel Open. "I always liked Charlotte," says Hamlin. "It's a cool track." Yet he points out "the tire (the teams will be running at the track both weekends) is so hard that it feels like you're running on ice. Every lap it feels like you're out of control. With this tire, it's definitely going to be a case where track position is going to mean way more than (new) tires."
  • Last week: Hamlin finished 10th at Darlington and took Rookie of the Race honors for the fifth time this season. He became the seventh first-year driver to earn a top-10 finish at the famed facility in the last eight seasons. "It was a good run for us," said Hamlin, who jumped three spots in the standings to 13th, 76 points out of the top 10.
  • Etc.: Hamlin won his third pole and second race of the NASCAR Busch Series at Darlington. The victory enabled him to move into third place in the Busch Series chase for the championship. "I was patient and let everybody go (early in a run), and we come flying up through there after about 30 laps, and when we needed to go on the restart, we did," Hamlin said after the win. "We had the best car at the end."

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    14) Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Biffle has competed in two All-Star races and has run into problems in both. In 2004 he was caught up in an accident, and last year he was sidelined by suspension problems. But he has high hopes for this year's event. "We feel like we tested extremely well at Charlotte, and we feel like we're one of the better cars there," he said.
  • Last week: Biffle led seven times for a race-high 170 laps, including the final 49, as he held off a fast-closing Jeff Gordon to score his first win of the season and second straight at Darlington. The victory, the 10th of his career, vaulted him from 20th to 14th in the Nextel Cup standings. "That's pretty unbelievable that we're 14th in points," said Biffle, who had three DNF's in the first 10 races of the season. "It was just a good night overall for us."
  • Etc.: Crew chief Doug Richert said it has not been hard keeping the team "pumped up" this year. "It really hasn't been hard because if you really look at the performance of the team overall, minus the finishes (before the last two weeks), we've led almost every race," Richert said. "We were competitive in the top five and top 10 of almost every race, even Martinsville, and we just didn't get the finishes that we probably really deserved. It just took until last week and this week (Darlington) to really show and have people talking about it. I'm happy."

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    15) Elliott Sadler, No. 38 Ford, Robert Yates Racing
  • This week: After finishing second in all three segments of the All-Star Challenge in 2005, Sadler will have to earn his way back into the event this year. "It's disappointing that we are not qualified for the All-Star race, but I'm looking forward to running the Open, trying to get a win there and then run in the All-Star race," says Sadler. "Hopefully I will be one of the guys to drive the most laps on Saturday night."
  • Last week: Sadler began the evening at Darlington with high hopes after qualifying sixth. But instead it turned out to a long night as he finished 29th. Sadler said the car was extremely loose in the corners and tight while traveling through the center of the turns. And despite numerous adjustments, the problem was never solved.
  • Etc.: Sadler believes this weekend is a key one because "it gives us and all the teams a week off from points racing, a week to just go out there and race and maybe see what you have for the Coca-Cola 600. I think we'll get to see more this weekend who the big players are going to be for next weekend's race."

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    16) Clint Bowyer, No. 07 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: Bowyer says he is "definitely looking forward to Charlotte (the Nextel Open on Saturday night). I'm excited to get back to a race track where I've got a little more experience (than Darlington)." Bowyer said he was pleased with how the test session went at Lowe's. "We got the car freed up where we could drive it and got a pretty good lap going right there at the end and got a lot happier with it."
  • Last week: A pit-stop penalty proved disastrous for Bowyer. He never recovered from it as he ended up 23rd after running as high as second early in the Darlington race. Bowyer was still running in the top 10 when he pitted on lap 96. But the right rear tire slipped from the tire carrier's grasp and rolled across pit lane. The penalty dropped Bowyer to 32nd. "It was an up-and-down night, for sure," said a dejected Bowyer. "Once we got back in traffic it was kind of a struggle."
  • Etc.: Car owner Richard Childress was awarded an honorary degree from the board of trustees of Davidson County (N.C.) Community College last week during the commencement ceremony on the school's campus.

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    17) Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Edwards will be making his second start in the All-Star race and hopes things go better than the first one -- he finished 15th last year after being involved in an accident. But he realizes that staying out of trouble will be a major challenge because of the hard tire the teams are using in 2006. "Getting the right setup is going to be the key (to winning the All-Star event)," he said.
  • Last week: Edwards was the second Roush Racing driver to suffer drive belt failure as he ended up 39th to drop from 13th to 17th in the standings. Edwards was seeking his fourth straight top-10 finish. "I love this race track and I hate being behind the wall," said Edwards, who was running seventh when he experienced the engine problem.
  • Etc.: A year ago after the first 11 races, Edwards stood 13th in the point race with one win, two top-fives and four top-10s. While he has more top-fives (three) and top-10s (five) in 2006, Edwards is still looking for his first win. And after the engine problems at Darlington, he sits in 17th place, 134 points out of the top 10. He was only 55 points out of the top 10 at this stage of the season in 2005.

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    18) Kurt Busch, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing South
  • This week: Busch has competed in four editions of the All-Star race and has two top-five finishes and three top-10s. He finished second in 2003. Busch says "with no points on the line this weekend and with them waving a million-dollar check in our faces, it'll be wild, I can guarantee that."
  • Last week: A bad pit stop and an ill-handling race car meant a 19th-place finish for Busch at Darlington. "We were about a seventh-place car the first third of the race," said Busch. "The car rolled off the jack (on a pit stop), and that put us way back in the field. It was just way too loose or way too tight the rest of the night. It was just a really weird night."
  • Etc.: While Busch wants to win the All-Star race, he admits "we're also looking at it as being additional testing for the (Coca-Cola) 600. We'll be running basically the same package next week and we really need to be prepared for that race. There's a limit to just how far you can go and as soon as you step over it, you're gonna bust your tail, that's for sure."

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    19) Ryan Newman, No. 12 Dodge, Penske Racing South
  • This week: Newman has won the second segment of the Nextel All-Star Challenge the last two years, but he has yet to be out front when it comes time to pay out the big money. Newman finished second in 2004 but was caught up in an accident last year. The team did win the pole a year ago. Newman says the "thing I really like about this weekend is we can just race and not have to worry about points. I think you see the type of racing this weekend that you would see every weekend if points weren't involved."
  • Last week: Newman finished sixth for his second consecutive top-10 finish as he climbed from 23rd to 19th in the standings. "I think everybody else got a little better and we stayed about the same," said Newman, who started second. "We've got it going in the right direction. We've got to keep our chins up and marching forward."
  • Etc.: Newman really enjoys fishing even if he doesn't catch anything. "I enjoy sitting on the water in a boat with a friend or my wife," says Newman. "If we catch fish, that's great, too, but I just really enjoy the environment."

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    20) Jamie McMurray, No. 26 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: McMurray qualified for the 2003 version of the All-Star race, but to earn a spot in this year's event he must win the Nextel Open. McMurray finished third in the Open in 2004 but struggled last year as he finished a disappointing 14th. He hopes the move to Roush Racing means a trip to Victory Lane and a shot at the million dollars that goes to the winner of the All-Star Challenge.
  • Last week: A broken oil pump sidelined McMurray around the 350-mile mark at Darlington as he finished 42nd to drop from 17th to 20th in the point standings. "It's a very frustrating year for us," said McMurray. "We had a good car at the beginning of the race. It was a little bit loose and we adjusted on it. I don't know if we over-adjusted, but something happened to the car and it just got really tight. If there was any night you wanted something to happen, today was the day to have it because our car wasn't very good."
  • Etc.: McMurray hopes he can pull a Matt Kenseth in 2006. A year ago, Kenseth was 21st in the standings after 11 races, 247 points out of the top 10. And like McMurray this season, Kenseth had struggled big time in the first third of the year. But the team got its act together and Kenseth made the Chase for the Championship. McMurray is 196 points behind 10th-place Jeff Burton.

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    21) Brian Vickers, No. 25 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Vickers won the Nextel Open in 2005 in a last-lap duel with Mike Bliss, bumping his way by Bliss to score the victory. And Vickers came close to pulling off a stunning upset in the All-Star Challenge as he finished third behind Mark Martin and Elliott Sadler. Vickers will need another win in this year's Open to again qualify for the All-Star event.
  • Last week: Vickers brought out the first caution flag of the evening when he spun and hit both the outside and inside walls on the backstretch on lap 27. As a result, he limped home in 41st-place to fall from 19th to 21st in the standings. "We got pretty loose about five or so laps before that (wreck)," said Vickers. "Maybe we had a tire going down, but I don't think a tire would have caused that on the straightaway. There may have been some contact."
  • Etc.: Vickers admits the Open is a "tough race to win, but we've done it before and I think we can do it again. We've had some real good cars as of late but have had on-track incidents that have prevented us from getting good finishes. This is the race last year where things really started to click for our team and helped us to begin a string together a solid three months or so. We've looking for the same beginning at Lowe's on Saturday night."

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    22) Martin Truex Jr., No. 1 Chevrolet, DEI
  • This week: Truex finished 10th in last year's Nextel Open, but he earned a spot in the All-Star Challenge by receiving the most votes by the fans. This year, Truex hopes he qualifies for the All-Star race by winning the Open. "I really appreciate the vote by the fans last year, but the best way to get into the All-Star Challenge is by winning the race," said Truex.
  • Last week: Truex finished 14th in his first Cup start at Darlington. The top-15 finish enabled him to move from 25th to 22nd in the standings. "It was good just to finish for once," said Truex. "The last couple of weeks have been hard. We were decent. We could do good for 20 or 30 laps and then we'd get real loose. We finished about where we should have."
  • Etc.: After the first 11 races of the 2006 season, Truex is tied for third in the Rookie of the Year standings with J.J. Yeley with 96 points. Denny Hamlin leads the way with 119 points, while Clint Bowyer is second with 110.

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    23) J.J. Yeley, No. 18 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: Yeley knows he needs to win the Nextel Open if he wants to have any chance at the million-dollar first-place prize in the Nextel All-Star Challenge. And he believes the car the team is running this weekend is very capable of doing just that. Yeley ran the car earlier this year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he qualified fifth and finished 15th.
  • Last week: Yeley finished 26th in his first Cup race at Darlington to drop one spot in the standings to 23rd. The rookie driver did extend his streak of consecutive race finishes to 16. His only DNF came in his very first Nextel Cup race last September at California Speedway.
  • Etc.: After the test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway earlier this month, Yeley called it "180 miles per hour Ice Capades. It's just a little slippery. The race track has a lot of grip; it's just that the tire is not allowing it to show. It's just a matter of just trying to get the car comfortable, get the car to rotate."

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    24) Reed Sorenson, No. 41 Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
  • This week: Even though Sorenson will be competing in his first Nextel Open on Saturday night, he believes he will be on equal footing with veterans such as Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler in the race because of the hard tire that the teams will be running the next two weekends at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I think it's all about getting the right deal as far as the team goes," said Sorenson. "I don't think it's a driver having an advantage or anything like that."
  • Last week: Sorenson finished 11th in his first Nextel Cup start at Darlington. "That's not a bad run at a tough race track, especially with the way things have been going," said Sorenson, who moved up two places in the point race to 24th. "It's nice to come here to a place where it's tough to drive and get a good finish. The team did a great job."
  • Etc.: Sorenson says the tire that the teams will be using at Lowe's Motor Speedway is "really, really hard and it doesn't seem to be wearing at all. After you run 15, 20, 30 laps, you look at the tire and it's shiny and it doesn't look like it's even been run. It's hard to tell how the new pavement is when we're running slower times than we were with the old pavement."

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    25) Jeff Green, No. 66 Chevrolet, Haas CNC Racing
  • This week: A year ago, the Haas team just missed making the Nextel All-Star Challenge. Mike Bliss was the driver then, and he was the leading the Nextel Open as the field got the white flag. But Bliss was bumped from behind by Brian Vickers as they raced off turn four, and Bliss crossed the finish line sideways but in this second place. Green and crew chief Robert "Bootie" Baker are confident that they again will contend for the win in the Open and a place in the All-Star Challenge.
  • Last week: Green finished 32nd at Darlington to fall from 21st to 25th in the standings. "I'm scratching my head," said Green. "With everything we tried, something should have made the car better, but nothing we did helped me like I needed it to. It was one of those night where we just couldn't find the setup we needed."
  • Etc.: Green says he won't be surprised if "a few guys tear up their race cars in practice until we get some more tire rubber down. That place (Lowe's Motor Speedway) can be pretty slick when you first get out there. Just like all newly paved tracks, it's going to take a little time for it to be really 'raceable.'"

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    Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Reed Sorenson, Dale Jarrett, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart, Travis Kvapil

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