Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
NASCAR's finest lay it all on the line Saturday night in their own backyard for the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's a non-points-paying event at home, so it is all for money and bragging rights.
Twenty teams and are already guaranteed starting spots in the All-Star Race by virtue of their drivers winning a points-paying Sprint Cup event in 2011 or up to this point in 2012 or their drivers winning the all-star event within the last 10 years.
Of those 20 teams, The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team and driver Jimmie Johnson will have first dibs during pit selection for the All-Star Race, since the team won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge, held Thursday night at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. It was the first Pit Crew Challenge win for Hendrick Motorsports.
Time's not up on getting into the All-Star Race, though. There will be a Sprint Showdown preliminary event earlier in the evening at the track for drivers not already locked into the All-Star Race. The top-two finishers of that race will get into the big show.
Then there's the fan vote. Even drivers who aren't in contention for the top-two transfer spots will have something to race for. A fan vote conducted on NASCAR.com will determine the 23rd and final starter of the All-Star Race. But drivers who don't finish the Showdown on the lead lap won't be eligible to get in on the fan vote.
As long as he finishes on the lead lap, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is expected to be in the All-Star Race. The fact that he's pretty much the face of the sport causes most race fans to automatically assume that he's got the fan vote spot already wrapped up if he doesn't finish the Sprint Showdown within the top-two. But like everyone else in the Showdown field, he does have to finish on the lead lap to take advantage of it.
I've got a lot to race for on Saturday night under the lights in Charlotte.
There's a handful a newcomers to the event already guaranteed a spot in the Sprint All-Star Race -- No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford driver Trevor Bayne, No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver Paul Menard and No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford driver Marcos Ambrose -- thanks to their first-career series wins in 2011.
"I'm really excited to be in the All-Star Race for the first time this weekend," Ambrose said. "I've got a great team behind me, and they deserve to be in this All-Star event as much as I do. I've got a lot to race for on Saturday night under the lights in Charlotte."
Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, heads into the All-Star Race looking to defend his title from a year ago.
"We need the All-Star race right now," Edwards said. "It's a race where we can just go let it all hang out, have some fun and not worry about any points. We're just going for the win in each segment and, hopefully, get to victory lane like we did last year. That was a blast and one of the neatest nights of my career, so I'm excited to just go out there and have some fun."
To repeat, among the drivers he'll have to contend with will be Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Gordon leads all drivers in the field with three wins in the event.
Saturday night's hometown showdown may not pay any points, so it won't help Gordon as far as the championship points standings go, but a win would at least provide momentum for his No. 24 team to turnaround what, up to this point, has been a somewhat disastrous 2012. Even so, Gordon's not approaching the All-Star Race any differently than any other race.
"Every week, we're racing and pushing as hard as we can to try to win the race or get the best finish possible," Gordon said. "It doesn't matter if points are on the line or not. I don't approach the All-Star Race any different than I do any other race."
The Sprint Showdown is slated to take the green flag at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET, with the All-Star Race expected to get underway around 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. Both can be seen live on SPEED.