Opinion: No holds barred tonight at Nextel

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 21, 2005

After six second-place finishes in his first 1.5 seasons in Nextel Cup competition, Kasey Kahne finally earned his first victory last week at Richmond. Kahne surprised many people with his strong rookie performance last season and even though his second had a rocky start, he broke the ice with his first of what I believe will be many victories.

Even though I am not the biggest Tony Stewart fan in the world, he showed a lot of class Saturday night after the race in the way that he congratulated Kahne. I don’t know if it was Joe Gibbs, Home Depot, or NASCAR, but someone must have gotten Stewart’s attention and made him understand that he was on a path of destruction over the past few years.

Jimmie Johnson’s bad luck continued at Richmond, finishing 40th, but because he had such a cushion in the points standings, he held on to the lead. Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Elliot Sadler and Kurt Busch make up the top five in points. After 11 of 36 races, 19 drivers are within the magic 400-point mark to make the chase. At this time point in the season last year, only 11 drivers were contenders to make the chase.

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This week the superstars of NASCAR are on display at the annual Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. This is a non-points event and the winner earns $1 million, so the drivers will throw caution in the wind and go all out to win.

The field for the main event is set at 22 drivers and a driver must have met certain eligibility requirements to compete in the race. Drivers who won a race in the previous year or so far this year, who have won a championship in the last 10 years and who have won the All-Star race in the past 10 years are eligible for the event. The winning driver of the Nextel Open, the race for drivers who are not eligible for the All-Star race, also makes the field. The final spot is determined by a fan vote, a new twist that was added last year.

This race has produced some awesome memories over the years. Remember Rusty Wallace punting Darrell Waltrip into the infield grass to win the race in 1989? Michael Waltrip won his first career race after making the field by winning the qualifying race in 1996 at this event. This is also the race that sponsors and drivers unveil special paint schemes, a trend that was started by Dale Earnhardt in the mid-90s. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with three wins and Rick Hendrick leads the team owners with five victories.

My pick for this race is Johnson. His team is too solid to continue the bad luck and this track shares the name of his sponsor, Lowe’s.

The race coverage begins at 7 p.m. on the FX network. See you next week, when we start planning for the most grueling race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.

Jeff Findley is publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, N.C. His racing column appears in several newspapers in the Southeast. He can be reached at jeff.findley@r-cnews.com.