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Showdown Produces All-Stars And Thrills

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2016
Kyle Larson survived the Showdown to earn a slot in the All-Star race on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Kyle Larson survived the Showdown to earn a slot in the All-Star race on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

CONCORD, N.C. – Five drivers advanced to Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star race following the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it was the racing produced by the event’s new format that provided a rebirth of the excitement for which NASCAR was once known.

sprint-logo-08Smoke flew from rubbing, banging sheet metal as Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott charged for the checkered flag. Elliott went three wide on the final restart and a lap later narrowly sliced through Ryan Blaney and Landon Cassill to advance his position. Trevor Bayne shot the middle in three-wide formation.  It was an hour in which the drivers showed off their racing talent.

With a slim victory over Elliott in the first and third segments, Bayne and Larson advanced to the Sprint All-Star race. Greg Biffle, who won the second segment, was the only driver able to cruise to victory.  Elliott was the top vote getter among the fans and Danica Patrick was second to give both of them entrance into the Sprint All-Star race.

“I knew Chase was probably going to win the fan vote so I knew I had to win because I probably wasn’t going to win the fan vote,” Larson said after his victory in the final 10-lap segment.

Under this year’s format, the Sprint Showdown was divided into three segments and a pit stop for at least two tires was required between each segment. The first two segments were 20 laps each and the final one was 10 laps. The winner of each segment advanced into the Sprint All-Star race and exited the event after the victory. That increased the Sprint All-Star race field to 18. Since a minimum 20-car field is required that meant the top two vote getters among the fans also gained positions in the All-Star race.

Originally scheduled for Friday evening, the Sprint Showdown was moved to Saturday morning due to rain on Friday. The inclement weather resulted in Sprint Showdown qualifying being canceled and the starting lineup determined by owner points. That put Elliott on the pole, Blaney second and Austin Dillon third.

Halfway through the first 20-lap segment the running order remained Elliott, Blaney and Dillon. On lap 15, Blaney began challenging Elliott for the lead. Then a caution in the waning laps set up a one lap shootout. Elliott led on the restart with Blaney second, Dillon third, Bayne fourth and then Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., respectively.

NASCAR ruled that Blaney jumped the restart, but it was the move made by Bayne on the backstretch that set up the dash between Elliott and him for the win. With the field streaking down the backstretch, Bayne shot between Elliott, who was low, and Blaney. A push from Stenhouse shot Bayne into the lead, but Elliott came charging back. The two drag raced off the fourth turn to the finish with Bayne taking a narrow five-thousandths of a second victory over Elliott.

“I was thinking about what I could do and I timed the restart really good and got right to the 21’s (Blaney) bumper at the line and was able to get three-wide off of turn two,” Bayne said after the victory that moved him into his first All-Star race since 2012. “I was a little concerned with dirty air, but I got a run and went through the middle. It was a little sketchy squeezing through the hole.”

Bayne said that without the push from Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Stenhouse he didn’t know if he could have made it past Elliott.

“I really appreciate that and will definitely pay him back in a good way at some point,” Bayne said. “That takes me back to Texas in 2011 in the Xfinity race when I restarted fourth and pushed Carl (Edwards) out before winning the race.”

During the pit stop between the first two segments, Dillon took only two tires. Biffle also took two, but he had pitted for two tires during the first segment’s caution period. That gave Biffle four fresh tires for the second segment and that made the difference. Biffle dove to the inside of Dillon on the seventh lap of the second 20-lap segment and was never challenged. He finished about 2 seconds ahead of Larson to gain entrance into his 13th All-Star race.

“Brian Pattie is a very, very smart veteran crew chief in this sport and it was his call,” Biffle said about the pit strategy. “I was skeptical of it, trust me, but I tell you what, what really made the difference was we made a chassis adjustment, two left-side tires. The car was really fast the last single lap that we made under green (in the first segment) and I was able to pass four cars in one lap. Then we came down and the guys ripped off a great two-tire stop like a lot of other cars did and got us out third. Really, that’s what did it.”

For the start of the final 10-lap segment, Elliott opted for four fresh tires over track position. Larson’s team elected the opposite and changed only two tires, getting him off pit road first. Allmendinger and Landon Cassill also took only two tires. When the segment started, Larson was leading and Elliott was 10th. The 20-year-old Elliott charged to the outside, often making it three wide to quickly advance through the field. At one point, he made a top to bottom slice, narrowly squeezing between Blaney and Allmendinger to gain a position. Once he dispensed with the second-place Allmendinger he set sail for Larson.

With the laps winding down, Elliott tried the inside, but Larson squeezed down on him and nearly pulled the car around. For the final lap, Elliott chose the outside and as the two raced off the fourth turn the cars banged several times, rubbing sheet metal, smoke flying the entire way before Larson edged Elliott at the flag. The duel was reminiscent of the Kyle Petty-Davey Allison charge to the checkered flag in the 1992 All-Star race.

“Chase got to my inside there with two (laps) to go and I was able to run him pretty hard there and get him loose and was hoping I could hold him off to the checkered,” Larson said. “I didn’t know he would get that close there coming to the line. I had to squeeze him. I am sure Chase is upset with me. He has all the reason in the world to be, but, hey, we’re going for a million bucks tonight. I’ve never had a chance to do that before.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2016
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