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Touring drivers ready for closeup

After a season of racing in virtual anonymity, the nation's best short-track drivers are ready for their big moment.

The top drivers from NASCAR's minor-league touring series will compete against each other for the first time Saturday night, vying for a purse of more than $500,000 in front of a national cable TV audience.

With the race scheduled to start at 8 p.m., long after the Busch Series race in Rockingham, N.C., these 70 drivers that most fans have never heard of will get the spotlight to themselves.

"Anybody that knows anything about NASCAR racing is going to be watching these races," said Jeff Jefferson, the champion of the Northwest Series. "Everybody knows about this shootout. If you can win that, you can definitely get your name out."

The inaugural Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif., actually is two races.

The opener is a 100-lapper for the top 10 drivers from the Elite NASCAR divisions (the Midwest, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest series) on the three-eighths mile Irwindale Speedway. The nightcap features the top 15 from the Busch North and Winston West series for 125 laps.

There's a twist. Each race will be run in segments, with the final one a 25-lap sprint to the checkered flag. In the first part, each driver will compete as part of a team for his division, and the team accumulating the most points wins a bonus, $20,000 for the Elite series and $30,000 for the finale.

"It's almost like combining the all-star game and the playoffs," said Chris Boals, NASCAR's director of regional touring. "It'll be the biggest thing that NASCAR has ever done for these regional series. It puts them on a new playing field.

"I don't think we've ever done anything this big for this level of racing."

Short-track drivers usually compete for five-figure purses in front of small-town crowds and without TV coverage. The results barely get a mention even in local newspapers.

BRACK IMPROVES: Kenny Brack was in good condition after additional surgery on his broken back and right ankle.

The former Indy Racing League champion and Indianapolis 500 winner was seriously injured in a crash last month at Texas Motor Speedway.

"Everything went very well, and we were able to further strengthen Kenny's spine," Dr. Terry Trammell said. "This shouldn't slow down his rehabilitation process at all."

Brack had two operations at a Dallas hospital and was transferred to Indianapolis two weeks ago to begin rehabilitation. His recovery could take six months.

Tuesday's surgery included a bone graft to complete the reconstruction of the ankle.

RENNA REPLACED: CART racer Darren Manning was hired by Ganassi Racing to replace Tony Renna, killed last month while testing for the IRL team.

Manning will team with IRL champion Scott Dixon and take the spot originally assigned to Renna. He was killed in a crash Oct. 22 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.