Getting Set for 'The Challenge'

CONCORD, N.C. -- Darrell Waltrip unwittingly helped NASCAR's all-star race earn a frantic reputation in its very first year.

<a href=";src%3D835670%3Bmet%3D1%3Bv%3D1%3Bpid%3D9066858%3Baid%3D8059686%3Bko%3D0%3Bcid%3D5249417%3Brid%3D5267313%3Brv%3D1%3Bcs%3Da%3Beid1%3D1000%3Becn1%3D1%3Betm1%3D0%3B_dc_redir%3Durl%3f|3112|3|0|%2a|q%3B8059686%3B0-0%3B0%3B9066858%3B4307-300|250%3B5249417|5267313|1%3B%3B%3f" target="_blank"> </a>

He won in 1985 after running down Harry Gant and passing him with two laps left, a victory that gave Waltrip $200,000. As he crossed the finish line, with his arm out the window waving to the fans, the engine in Waltrip's Chevrolet failed in a large plume of smoke.

The engine, Waltrip said, was built with lightweight parts to give him extra horsepower and easily could have broken down earlier. But it lasted just long enough -- a fact Waltrip's competitors found a bit too convenient.

"Over the years, a lot of people said that I made the motor blow on purpose,'' he said. "But one minute I've got my hand out the window, and then the next minute, I've got my hands full with a car that's almost out of control. There's no way I could have done that.''

The 20th running of what is now called the Nextel All-Star Challenge -- the first 19 were known as The Winston, after longtime NASCAR sponsor R.J. Reynolds -- is Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

A change in format leaves 25 drivers eligible, including the winner of the preliminary Nextel Open and another driver from the opener that will be voted in by fans. As always, the event is run in three segments, with a 20-lap dash for the finale.

Waltrip certainly has had his share of excitement. In 1989, he led Rusty Wallace with two laps left, trying to become the first driver to win twice. But as the cars came off Turn 4 for the next to last time, Wallace tapped Waltrip and sent him into a slide through the infield grass.

When Wallace drove his car through the pits toward victory lane, his crew fought briefly with a few of Waltrip's mechanics.

"When you run this race ... you bring all the friends you can,'' said car owner Robert Yates, who won in 1991-92 with the late Davey Allison. "You never know what's going to happen.''

In '92, Allison pulled inside of Kyle Petty coming toward the checkered flag and won by about 10 feet, but the two cars banged together just past the finish line.

"We were like two sprinters heading for the tape,'' Petty said.

Allison's car slammed into the outside wall, destroying the car and knocking the driver out. He was taken by helicopter to the hospital and later released with minor injuries. Yates was left with a pile of junk that track officials wanted to drag to victory lane.

"They wanted to tow the car there, but I wouldn't let them,'' Yates said. "I've never liked looking at wrecked cars, and especially one where I didn't know if Davey was going to be all right or not.''

Yates won the argument, and the postrace celebration took place with no car as a backdrop.

Other memorable moments:

  • Earnhardt's "pass in the grass'' in 1987. Actually, it wasn't a pass at all; he simply held the lead after a bump from Bill Elliott sent him sliding through the infield.

  • Jeff Gordon winning in 1997 with a developmental chassis. The car's modifications were within the rules but NASCAR told the team it couldn't run that car anymore.

  • Gordon running out of gas on the final lap in 1998, allowing Mark Martin to zoom past for the victory.

  • The 2001 race started in a drizzle and four drivers -- Gordon among them -- crashed on the damp track on the first lap. NASCAR allowed all four to pull out a backup car for the restart, and Gordon rallied for his third all-star win, tying Earnhardt for all-time lead.

    Gordon goes for No. 4 this year with a retro look. His Chevrolet will display the "rainbow warrior'' color scheme for which Gordon was famous early in his career.

    "Hopefully, we can give it one more trip to victory lane,'' he said.