CONCORD, N.C. -- Carl Edwards was so overjoyed after winning the Sprint All-Star Race last season that he wrecked his car celebrating. As he spun gleeful doughnuts through the infield grass, the front end of his car stuck and threw up a spray of sod and dirt. The vehicle spun backward, trailing pieces of earth and sheet metal behind it, and throwing off scrapes when it slid back onto the asphalt. The smoldering husk of a No. 99 Ford that Edwards drove to Victory Lane had smoke emanating from both front-wheel wells.
"I saw the replay [Thursday] night," Edwards said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I might have hit my head even on the steering wheel pretty good. It was just an ugly victory celebration."
Amazing what can happen when you put $1 million on the line and tell the boys to have at it. Edwards made more than $11 million in race winnings last season, when he pushed eventual champion Tony Stewart to the final race of the title chase, and surely pocketed a similarly healthy amount in apparel and souvenir sales. Top Sprint Cup drivers fly private for a reason -- they're highly skilled, and well-compensated because of it. And yet, you put $1 million on the line and these guys get a glazed, dreamy look in their eyes, as if they're all suddenly little kids staring longingly at someone else's ice-cream cone.
To anyone, including professional drivers who pull down plenty of bank over the other 37 weeks of the NASCAR season, $1 million is a serious chunk of cash. On the Sprint Cup schedule, only the Daytona 500 pays more. No question, winning any week on a circuit as competitive as this one is an achievement worth celebrating. But having $1 million dangling out there at the end of a stick, knowing that it can be yours after a relatively brisk 90 laps of competition -- well, it just adds a completely different element that almost no other race can match.
"A million dollars, there are a lot of reasons there to ruffle some feathers. Or to steal [Dale] Earnhardt's phrase, to rattle his cage," said Jimmie Johnson, last weekend's winner at Darlington Raceway. "You need to be in position to do that."
Yes, it's a tune-up in some ways for next week's points-paying Coca-Cola 600 at the same track. Yes, it's a sought-after trophy in its own right -- past champions like Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. count their All-Star victories among the most prominent wins of their careers. But oh, the money. It's simply too big, too gaudy, too always-on-the-mind to ignore. There's a reason this exhibition event has produced finishes like Rusty Wallace spinning Darrell Waltrip in 1989, or Davey Allison and Kyle Petty crashing one another at the line three years later. The money always has been huge. It paid $200,000 to the winner that first year in 1985, jumped to a half-million in 2000, and three years later cracked the $1 million mark.
* Sound Off: How far drivers are willing to go to win | Junior reflects, ponders
* Race Hub: Petty recalls 1992 thriller | Earnhardt's Pass in the Grass in '87
And it makes drivers do -- or at least consider -- strange things. There's always strategy involved in an event broken into segments, and that's certainly the case this year, with the winners of the first four segments moving to the front for the pit stop before that final 10-lap dash. No tire changes are mandatory, which means you'll almost certainly see some teams take fuel only and try to stretch it to the end on old rubber. "Nobody can sit here and say, 'This is what we're going to do. You've got to perform on the fly," three-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham said. But it's after that pit stop, when it all comes down to speed and money, where the real decisions must be made. And they'll be argued between the angel sitting on a driver's one shoulder, and the devil holding a big bag of cash on the other.
"We know there's going to be a little pushing and shoving and rubbing and grinding going on for that $1 million bucks on the last lap," points leader Greg Biffle said. "Typically, it's hard to get beside that guy on that last lap, or hard to get to him, so that is true, but my feelings will be hurt if you cost me from winning that $1 million bucks. We all are going to do whatever we can. We're not going to intentionally, or at least I'm not going to intentionally, wreck somebody. But you're certainly going to rough them up and try to maybe stop their momentum a little bit, or find some type of advantage or edge if it's coming down to the checkered flag."
A million bucks matters, particularly to drivers who didn't come up as children of privilege, and back in the day sunk everything they had into their go-karts or late models, and watched their parents sacrifice financially to help advance their careers, and still today recognize the value of a dollar even though they have a big boat parked over on Lake Norman. How far will they go to win it Saturday night?
"As far as you can push it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Anything pretty much goes in this race. If you can get to a guy's bumper on the last lap, he's going to be in trouble. I think with the amount of money on the line, how big this race is, if you get turned around on the last lap for the win, I don't think you can hold too much of a grudge. There is a bit of a code when it comes to particular races such as this, that no matter how dirty it gets at the end, you've got to kind of let it go. There's just too much at stake. It's just a lot of money.
"You've seen things happen before and it's tough to take I'm sure. I've never been on that end of it, such as Darrell getting spun out by Rusty, or what went on between my old man roughing up Bill [Elliott] and all them guys in the 1987 race. That kind of stuff is going to be a part of it. If you're close enough to the guy at the end of the race, that's what is going to happen. ... I think this race gets a bye when it comes to your feelings and getting your feelings hurt."
Not everyone competing Saturday night has money foremost on the mind. AJ Allmendinger, who will start on the pole in the Sprint Showdown qualifier that will precede the main event, said the prestige of winning would trump everything else. Three non-qualified drivers will transfer from the Showdown to the All-Star Race, the top two finishers and one chosen by a fan vote.
"Sure, you're not going to say the money doesn't matter, or it doesn't affect you. It's always nice to have extra cash in your pocket," Allmendinger said. "But when it comes to the same point, the money's the last reason I want to win it. I want to win it because I'd love to be an All-Star champion. You win the All-Star Race, you're the best of the best. Everybody had everything out there. Everybody laid it on the line, there was no holding back. That's what makes this race so fun. It's not about the points, it's not about holding back. Everybody's giving everything they have in those segments. If you can beat them, you're the best that night, and it's something for me that would be pretty amazing to have."
Of course, perspectives are relative, and Allmendinger is a driver still chasing his first victory on the Sprint Cup tour. For others, $1 million is simply too large to ignore. Crashes before, at, and after the finish line -- with that much cash at stake, no wonder NASCAR's All-Star extravaganza has seen it all.
"This is the All-Star Race," Edwards said. "I think this is a good night for all of us to just say, hey, we're going to go out here and race for the win. You don't want to be an idiot or anything, but if your car is fast, there will be less patience, and I think there will be less patience expected from all of us. That's good for you guys [in the media] and good for the fans. It'll make it more thrilling, but we all know there is $1 million out there for the winner, and I'd hate to guess how much chaos there would be if there was a green-white-checkered, double-file restart for $1 million bucks. That would be insane."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
|Road to $1 million|
|• The Sprint All-Star Race consists of five segments, of 20, 20, 20, 20 and 10 laps.|
|• Twenty drivers are automatically qualified, as either race winners from 2011 and '12 or past champions of the All-Star event. Two more will transfer via the top two positions in the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap preliminary race, and another through a fan vote.|
|• Before the second, third and fourth segments of the All-Star Race, there is an optional pit stop in which teams may elect to pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Teams pitting will not retain their position on the track.|
|• Before the final segment, there is a mandatory pit stop in which teams may pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Tires are not mandatory during the stop. The winners of the first four segments will move to the front of the field prior to the final segment, and be the first cars coming to pit road.|
|• Prior to the final segment, cars will line up in the order in which they exited pit road.|
- Carl Edwards