NASCAR folks like to refer to their non-points race each May as their version of an all-star game, and its new name -- Nextel All-Star Challenge -- reflects that notion.

It's an obvious comparison, considering neither the race, formerly known as The Winston, nor any other sport's all-star game counts in the regular season standings.

Beyond that, racing is such a different sport from the ballgames that it's unrealistic to relate one to the other.

Think about it. . . .

It's a big deal, those rare occasions when Roger Clemens faces Barry Bonds, and special, indeed, when they're teammates for a couple of days in July.

It has been a great deal of fun to watch Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming and Tim Duncan put their rivalries aside on one night in February to pull on matching NBA all-star jerseys.

But on a weekly basis, all of the best teams and drivers race one another.

There isn't one must-see Matt Kenseth vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. matchup a year. Every time, it's Roush Racing vs. Dale Earnhardt Inc. vs. Richard Childress Racing vs. Penske Racing vs. Evernham Motorsports and so on and so on and so on.

In many ways, the Challenge is just like any of the 36 points-paying Nextel Cup Series events. Perhaps that's why it doesn't attract extraordinary headlines or catch the attention of people who wouldn't ordinarily be a fan. On the other hand, the format is different, and the winner takes $1 million. The grandstand at Lowe's Motor Speedway will be full and loud, and FX will draw a nice cable audience.

So the drivers know it's special, as do their fans.

"Remembering who won the NFL Pro Bowl game or the NBA All-Star Game may be tough," said Elliott Sadler, "but race fans always remember who wins our all-star race."

New Equipment

The new Ford cylinder head, approved by NASCAR for this season, made its on-track debut in Sadler's car Saturday and will be in five cars, including that of Kenseth, the reigning Cup champion, this weekend, said Doug Yates, head engine builder for Roush-Yates engines.

The top teams in points will have the option to use engines with the new head each week until enough become available for all Ford teams.

Indy Draws Near

The Indianapolis 500 keeps creeping closer to a full field.

Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner, finalized a deal Wednesday to join Felipe Giaffone at Dreyer & Reinbold. Seven spots remain to be filled Sunday before the May 30 race. . . .

Champ Car has tweaked its road course qualifying format again, aiming to provide action and minimize down time this weekend in Monterrey, Mexico.

The new procedure involves two group sessions Friday with the top five in each advancing to 15-minute competition later in the day. The winner of that, provisional pole-sitter, will earn a championship point as well as entry into Saturday's pole shootout.

The shootout will include nine more drivers, the fastest from a 30-minute session Saturday, and each will have seven laps to set his best time. . . .

Fox NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip thought Tony Stewart was kidding at first, but when the 2002 champ continued to take shots at the three-time champ, Waltrip had to wonder.

"Part of my job is to comment about situations on the track, and you can't ignore Tony's situation," Waltrip, who had been critical of Stewart for rough driving, told the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville: "This is reality TV. We don't make it up.

"I kept thinking maybe he'll call me up and tell me he was only kidding around. But so far I haven't heard from him."

Purvis Returns

Jeff Purvis, who suffered a serious head injury in a crash at the Nazareth Speedway in 2002, is set to return to the Busch Series this weekend, driving James Finch's No. 1 Dodge at that track. . . .

In a trickle-down from the elimination of North Carolina Speedway from the NASCAR schedule, Chris Browning, president of that track, will move to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. He'll replace Andrew Gurtis, who will become senior director of operational planning and integration for the parent International Speedway Corp.. . . .

Dario Franchitti got a whole new perspective on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his 31st birthday Wednesday: riding shotgun with team owner Michael Andretti in the Indy two-seater.

"I was terrified not being in control," Franchitti said. "Put it this way: If it hadn't been Michael, I would never have done it." . . .

The arrival of 50 Cent and his crew to the Nashville salvage yard owned by the father of Craftsman Truck Series racer Chad Chaffin caused a bit of culture shock, but the rapper's video got made and Chaffin and his kids have stories to tell.

"It was outrageous," Chaffin said. "I asked Juvenile if my kids could have their autograph and he replied, 'It's all good.' Well, I'm a country boy and didn't realize that meant, 'Yes.' "

Charity Work

NASCAR team head Ray Evernham will serve as national chairman for Light the Night, an event that the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society hopes will raise $23 million this year for blood cancer research. . . .

Dusty Boyd, a high-school senior and racer from Goldston, N.C., has been awarded the Alan Kulwicki Memorial Scholarship from the Lee College of Engineering at the University of Charlotte. . . .

Robby Gordon, who had considered a full-time run in the Busch Series as well as his Nextel Cup and Indy 500 efforts, now says he won't race Busch events this weekend and next. . . . Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who has correctly predicted nine of the past 15 winners of the NASCAR all-star race, picked Jeff Gordon for Saturday night.

Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, in costume, picks Jeff Gordon, right, to win Saturday's all-star race.