CONCORD, N.C. - In a hot night of racing Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was Jimmie Johnson who took home a cool $1 million, winning NASCAR's Sprint All-Star Race for the third time in his career.
While the race was a five-segment, 90-lap event in total, it was the final 10-lap shootout that ultimately wound up being the most exciting and action-packed stanza. With no regular-season points at stake, 21 of the 23 drivers that started the race were still in contention as they battled for the big prize.
Johnson, who won a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006-2010, started the 10-lap segment from the front of the field and coasted to victory in much the same fashion as he has done in his 56 regular season races on the circuit.
"What a night tonight for myself and all my fans out there," a beaming Johnson said in victory lane.
With the win, Johnson, whose team also won Thursday's Sprint Pit Crew Challenge, tied the record for most All-Star Race wins shared by teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt.
It was Johnson's second consecutive win in as many weeks, as he won last Saturday night in the 11th race of the regular season at Darlington Raceway.
That win was also the 200th career win for team owner Rick Hendrick.
"It's been a great week," Hendrick said over the team radio after Johnson crossed the finish line.
In turn, Johnson said, "I don't want this week to end."
Hendrick then went out on the track, climbed on the edge of Johnson's car and took a victory lap with his driver while riding half-in and half-out of the driver's side window.
"He told me (on the radio) to 'come pick me up,' and once I got to him, he didn't want the ride," Johnson said. "So, I said, 'no, no, I came to get you, get on the car.' It was great to take him around."
Brad Keselowski finished second, while the third through fifth finishers were Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I thought I could do something with him the first few laps, I thought we might be a touch faster, but I'm proud of our effort and our team," Keselowski said. "I think we're a real young team that's going and getting better every week, every day and every hour. We got beat by a five-time champ and a (three)-time All-Star winner, so I think we're doing pretty good."
Earnhardt, who won the fourth segment of the night, was a bit subdued after the race, disappointed that he wasn't able to finish higher. Still, Earnhardt felt optimistic that his run may bode well when the regular season resumes next Sunday with the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Earnhardt will come into that race riding a 140-race winless streak.
"It was a lot of fun and really was a good weekend," Earnhardt said. "The fans, they had an awesome crowd here. But the race was good. We worked on the car all night. I'm proud of our efforts tonight and look forward to next weekend because we've got a good car we're bringing back."
Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.
On Lap 67 of the fourth segment, reigning Sprint Cup Series points leader Greg Biffle became the second driver of the night from the Roush Fenway Racing camp to lose an engine. The motor on Biffle's Ford Fusion blew up and ignited a spectacular trailing fire before he was able to bring the car to a stop and make a quick exit as flames licked around the driver cockpit.
On the resulting restart, Earnhardt took off from the green flag as if his car was shot out of a cannon, and continued on to win the fourth segment, leaving him to start the deciding final 10-lap dash in fourth place.
For the first time in the 28-year history of the All-Star event, Saturday's race contained five segments - four 20-lap stanzas and a 10-lap deciding conclusion. NASCAR and race sponsor Sprint elected to increase the race from four to five segments this year to increase significance of winning each of the first four segments, with each segment winner to line up from first to fourth place for the final 10-lap sprint.
Kyle Busch led the first 14 laps of the first segment before Johnson led the final six laps. Because a pit stop was optional after the first segment, seven drivers remained on-track, including Earnhardt, who started the second segment sixth, a marked improvement from his 21st-place starting position in the 23-car field.
On Lap 25, last year's All-Star Race winner, Carl Edwards, lost his chance to make it two in a row when the engine on his Ford Fusion blew up, bringing out the first non-competition caution of the evening and knocking Edwards out of the race, with an ultimate last-place finish.
"Last year was so awesome to win this thing," Edwards said. "We were running real good the first segment, but I just knew something was wrong there."
Denny Hamlin led most of the second segment, but it was Kenseth that ultimately won the stanza, giving him the second spot for the final 10-lap segment.
In the third segment, emotions got higher and drivers became more aggressive as those that didn't do well in the first two stanzas began to throw caution to the wind and take more risky chances in pursuit of the elusive $1 million-plus prize for winning.
Keselowski assumed the lead at the start of the third segment, chased primarily by Kahne and Harvick, with speeds flirting with 185 mph around the 1.5-mile oval. And while Kahne challenged him late in the segment, Keselowski hung on to win by mere inches and earn the third starting spot in the final 10-lap section.
Meanwhile, in the two-segment Sprint Showdown, the undercard to Saturday night's main event, Earnhardt dominated from start to finish, leading all 40 laps to win and transfer into the Sprint All-Star Race.
"This is all about just going fast right out of the gate," Earnhardt said. "I think our car is pretty good, that's what we learned. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to have a lot of fun. We'd love to win a million dollars (first place in the All-Star Race). We're pumped up."
Also transferring into the All-Star event in dramatic fashion was runner-up A.J. Allmendinger, who bounced back from a flat tire on the Showdown's opening lap to pass Jamie McMurray on the final lap.
"I couldn't believe we had a flat tire coming to the green," Allmendinger said. "I gave it everything I had. If I didn't make it, I didn't want it to be for lack of trying. I did everything I could to get in there and if I had to, I was going to wreck trying."
Because Earnhardt won, he didn't have to rely upon the fan vote to transfer into the All-Star Race. As a result, the driver with the next highest amount of votes, Bobby Labonte, earned the fan vote and became the third and final driver to transfer into the All-Star Race, even though he finished 12th in the Showdown.