Despite it not counting for points, there were a million reasons why Jimmie Johnson was thrilled to take his second win in as many events. Taking the million-dollar prize for a record-equalling third time demonstrated that last week's victory at Darlington, Hendrick Motorsports' 200th, was no fluke, as Johnson controlled the race in the closing laps ahead of Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.
“To make the odds be in your favour, being in the front row for the final segment was going to be the key, so winning the first or second segments was the goal,” said the Californian. “We weren’t sure we could get there starting sixth, but the racecar was so amazing. I put her on the outside at the start of the first heat and let her rip around the top to get the lead. Then we were smart from there and worked on the car and got it right so we could be good in the end.”
The 23 car entry for NASCAR's show-piece event is determined by a number of factors. Those who had won races last year and in the first 11 rounds of 2012 were automatically entered, giving Marcos Ambrose among others his taste of All-Star action, while Mark Martin's All-Star victory in 2005 won him a spot in the field. But because only All-Star race winners from the past 10 years are given automatic entry, 1988 and 1999 winner Bobby Labonte was reliant on winning the Sprint Fan Vote for his spot, while the 2000 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. took one of the last two remaining places by winning the 40 lap Sprint Showdown for drivers not already qualified. Penske man AJ Allmendinger took the final transit spot after being delayed by an early puncture, but managed to pass Ganassi driver Jamie McMurray two laps from home.
The 2012 edition consisted of five segments; four 20-lap stints followed by a 10 lap 'dash for the cash'. The winner of the preliminary segments would then be placed at the head of the field for the compulsory pit-stop, the order at the final restart determined by the order the cars exited the pits.
Johnson's victory in the first segment would prove decisive, as it would place him at the lead of the pack when they entered the pits with 10 to go. Passing Denny Hamlin late on to win the second segment was 2004 winner Kenseth, the only remaining Roush-Fenway driver after his team-mates, the defending winner Carl Edwards and current Sprint Cup point's leader Greg Biffle both suffered engine failures.
“Something broke, but we had the car taped up and we were running as hard as we could,” said a pragmatic Edwards. “That's the hardest we've run one of these engines in a long time. I've never seen that water temp and that oil temp in a race car for that long and have it live, so I'm pretty proud of Doug and the guys that it made it as long as it did.”
The race's third segment finished in dramatic style, with Keselowski only just able to hang on to the lead in a photo-finish with the 2008 winner Kasey Kahne, who recovered well after crashing his primary car heavily in qualifying. In the fourth and final segment, Earnhardt took his second 'win' of the day, before the field lined up to roll down pit-road, with Johnson, Kenseth, Keselowski and Earnhardt out front. They resumed from the pits in the same order, with Ambrose, the Busch brothers and Kahne behind.
On the restart, the winner was decided as Johnson escaped out front and Kenseth, lining up on his outside, was unable to get up to speed in the oil dry put down after Biffle's engine failure. Kenseth's sluggish restart delayed Earnhardt and Kahne behind him in the outside line, and with that, Johnson was gone.
“There was oil dry there, so [Johnson] ran me up in the oil dry and I just couldn't get any traction,” Kenseth said. “I just couldn't get going and then by the time I got in line I was fourth. With 10 laps you're pretty much done.”
Kyle Busch was able to finish fourth, a disappointing result for the Joe Gibbs driver who had qualified comfortably on the pole.
“It went exactly like everybody thought it would; anybody who wins the first segment will win the race,” Busch said. “About the only thing we could have done was stayed out between the first and second segments and seen if we could have won the second segment. I think that was about our only chance.”
Earnhardt Jr. was fifth, ahead of Kevin Harvick, who survived a scrape with team-mate Paul Menard, and Ambrose, who thoroughly enjoyed his first All-star experience.
“It feels great. I came out here to really mix it up with them and I came here to win the cash. We didn't win the cash, but we sure let them know we were here,” the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said. “It's just a shame we couldn't quite finish it off there. We would have loved to have finished third or fourth, but we'll take a top 10. It's my first go at it and I learned a lot and I'm looking forward to the next one.”
Kurt Busch, Kahne and front-row starter Ryan Newman rounded out the top-10.