Nascars Field Of Dreams

Saturday night's 20th Annual NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge should have no problem living up to its name.

Not with nine former all-star champions - and six former series champions - in the field.

Some crossover exists between those groups. Four drivers in the event (formerly known as The Winston) list both all-star victories and series titles on their resumes: 10-time all-star Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), 12-time all-star Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), 17-time all-star Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and 18-time all-star Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet).

The 90-lap/135-mile event - at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. - is primarily for race winners from the previous and current NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series seasons. It also includes the winner of the NEXTEL Open, a preliminary event for teams that have competed but not won in 2003 and 2004. There also will be one other driver from the preliminary advancing to the main event, chosen via a fan vote conducted on And finally, all past all-star event champions still active are eligible, an inclusion clause that allows 1998 winner Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) and 1994 winner Geoffrey Bodine (No. 98 Lucas Oil Ford) into the 24-car field. (Bill Elliott is also eligible, but did not enter.)

As far as the actual competitive format goes, the race will be run in three segments (40, 30 and 20 laps) but in contrast to past years, no drivers will be eliminated after the first and second segments. Two other tweaks: The field will be inverted after the first segment, instead of the second segment; and the number of cars inverted will be determined via a random draw instead of a fan vote.

One of the event's long-time premises returns; it always has been one of the most lucrative and once again the winner will receive approximately $1 million.

"We put a lot of emphasis on this all-star race, because it's a big-money race and we've won it before, so we know how awesome it is to come out on top," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), who in 2000 became the first series rookie to win the all-star event.

"This is guts racing. It's just like the Budweiser Shootout (each February at Daytona) - it's a brawl. It's hard to predict an outcome in a money race like this, but that's what makes it fun."

Defending all-star champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) had fun last year, winning both the all-star race and the following weekend's Coca-Cola 600 at LMS. He thinks NASCAR's all-star show has other professional sports' versions topped.

"I would have to imagine that the prize money and everything else that goes into it is purpose-built, to try to make our sport be above and beyond what other sports have for their all-star events," Johnson said. "When you think of [all-star games in] football or baseball, there isn't much to it. They're pretty laid back. [The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge] is a big part of our sport with the big prize money.

"I think it really sets us above and beyond any other sport."

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