All-Star Challenge marred by inclement weather


CONCORD, N.C. – Pushed back by weather and circusy ceremonies, NASCAR’s Nextel All-Star Challenge ran out of prime time and became a late show Saturday night.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers sang – yes, sang – “Gentlemen, start your engines,” with the all-star evening already more than an hour behind schedule at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

The all-star finally started at 10:20 p.m., Kyle Busch won the first segment, of 40 laps. But even that part had a rain delay. Another shower forced a red flag with six laps left, and it was 25 minutes before Busch could finish the job, holding off Tony Stewart. Two segments, of 30 and 20 laps – and more Chili Pepper music at intermission – remained.

Scott Riggs became the last entry by winning the preliminary Nextel Open to grab the final berth in the all-star race.

Kyle Petty had been voted into an at-large berth by fans, as a boost to his Victory Junction Gang charity, a camp for seriously ill children.

The other 18 berths for the all-star were filled by drivers who either won a points race last year, were former season champions or had won the all-star in the past.

Riggs started on the pole for the Open, and his Dodge handled what few challenges he got with ease.

The only lap Riggs didn’t lead was the first of the 30, when rookie Denny Hamlin jumped in front on the start. But Hamlin bobbled on the second lap, and Riggs took the lead for keeps.

Jeff Green finished second in the Open.

“This is a good, good night to come out and make a sprint race, and make qualifying laps for 30 laps straight,” Riggs said, meaning his car was set up far more aggressively than it would be for a 500-miler.

The preliminary win “feels good, but it feels better that we can go on to the next race,” Riggs said. “That’s what we were shooting for.”

Riggs’ run was so smooth that “we didn’t do anything to mess it up,” he said of his car’s condition at intermission.

His luck lasted until only the 17th lap of the first segment of the all-star, when he was caught up in a multi-car spin and cut down a tire.

The start of the Open was delayed 1 hour, 40 minutes while the track was dried from a single shower in early evening. The green flag fell on the Open only 15 minutes before the all-star event had been scheduled to start.

After the brief challenge from Hamlin, Riggs began to run away from the field while the competition tried to stabilize their cars under tough and unique conditions.

Goodyear had brought the hardest-compound tire most of the drivers had tried to deal with. The intent was to avoid the epidemic of tire failures in last fall’s race here.

In a third try at alleviating the track surface problems, track officials repaved this past winter and spring.

And in the fourth attempt Saturday night, Goodyear brought the “rocks” that baffled most of the teams.

(c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-20-06 2350EDT