So… they really threw the kitchen sink at that one, huh?
NASCAR’s annual Cup Series All-Star Race has become as much of a testing ground for the sport as a genuine race in recent years. While the race itself has often struggled to deliver consistently, NASCAR has gotten value out of the event by trialing things like pre-race festivities, rules packages and formats.
Wednesday’s (July 15) edition of the event took that concept to the extreme, trialing everything from shifted numbers and underglow to a choose rule that offered a chance for a field shakeup prior to restarts. Even the track the event was held at changed, with NASCAR making a rare July voyage to Bristol Motor Speedway to hold the exhibition race under the lights with thousands of fans in attendance – a change in itself amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.
There was a lot to observe in the short race. So what worked? What floundered?
Moving to Bristol: Good
Let’s not delude ourselves – Wednesday’s race wasn’t the thriller for which fans might have hoped. The All-Star Open provided good battles and a dose of drama in the Michael McDowell–Bubba Wallace crash and subsequent smack talk, but the main event felt more akin to the half-mile oval’s spring race than a prize fight with $1 million on the line.
But in terms of glitz, spectacle and potential, Bristol delivered as expected.
The stadium-like design of the Last Great Colosseum lends itself well to high-profile races, and the fast-paced chaos that can play out on the circuit makes it an ideal track for such an event by NASCAR standards.
Even in a race that was largely devoid of drama in the closing laps, with Chase Elliott driving off as Kyle Busch tried in vain to catch him, the facility still carried an aura of spectacle and boisterousness that made it stand out.
“Oh my gosh, there‘s no feeling like it, nothing like it,” Elliott said of his win. “Bristol is an electric atmosphere unlike any place we go to. We‘re going to celebrate this one for sure.”
Are there tracks that could potentially put on a tighter, more electrifying show? Sure. Martinsville Speedway might have more potential for contact in the closing laps. Nothing would be less predictable than a drafting race at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, and for a real dogfight a trip to an even tighter bullring like Bowman Gray Stadium could provide a unique spectacle with near-guaranteed drama.
But Bristol as the host of the All-Star Race just felt right in a way that few other tracks could, especially with the limited allotment of tracks under the control of Speedway Motorsports, Inc.
Of all of the changes implemented for the All-Star Race, none were more random or last minute than the decision to add underglow to the cars.
In an effort to mimic the unique lighting seen under vehicles in movies like the Fast and Furious series and video games including entries in the Need for Speed franchise, NASCAR allowed teams that were locked into the annual exhibition to place the glowing neon light under their cars.
In doing so the series gave potential for a unique neon display on the track, but the execution didn’t seem to live up to the concept.
The move followed a trial of the underglow concept from Chip Ganassi Racing during the Burnouts on the Boulevard event in Nashville last fall, where Kurt Busch’s No. 1 and Kyle Larson’s No. 42 carried striking green and blue lights that accentuated their paint schemes.
Bristol was already much brighter than the Nashville streets utilized for that event, so the underglow was always going to be challenged to stand out. But competitors were also relegated to running manufacturer-specific colors and only showcasing the underglow on the back section of the cars.
The end result was a mixed bag, with all cars looking a bit silly and many carrying lights that clashed with the colors of their primary paint schemes.
Chevrolet’s amber lights made their entries look like they had a fire brewing on the undercarriage of their machines. The red and blue colors of Toyota and Ford entries generated the appropriate pop and contrast under the lights, but many of their cars looked cluttered with paint schemes in mismatched colors.
“I wish mine would have fallen off,” Harvick said with a chuckle. “The only person that I talked to that thought that that underglow light was good was my 8‑year‑old. Hopefully the kids liked it. It was definitely something that I’m way out of that age group for.”
If the underglow has potential to bring in new fans, particularly younger ones, then there might be cause for another trial run somewhere down the line. But those planning the implementation may want to consider allowing each individual team to choose a sponsor-specific color and trying to find a way to make the underglow stretch along the entire car instead of just the rear.
An actual purpose for them would be nice, too. Perhaps the All-Star Race could be billed as NASCAR’s equivalent of all-star games in the stick-and-ball world, where competitors are group into teams by manufacturer and carry paint schemes with a similar theme or color.
Choose Rule: Good
No new implementation in Wednesday’s race made more sense for modern NASCAR competition than the choose rule.
The rule was trialed after calls for its addition to NASCAR canon from numerous drivers and industry members amid the current position games played on pit road in an attempt to get the preferred lane for restarts. Its concept is simple: before coming to the green, each driver gets an opportunity to select which lane they’ll restart in at a certain point on the track.
Running second and prefer starting third in the preferred lane? Follow the leader in the same lane. See an opportunity to pick up track position because three straight drivers went into the high lane? Dive low and take the risk.
Many short tracks and grassroots tours have utilized the choose rule over the years, with most utilizing a cone that’s tied to a rope and pulled off the track after the field rolls through. The All-Star Race saw the first test of the choose rule in a NASCAR national series, with an arrow set up past the start-finish line that forced competitors to drive above or below it and choose a lane.
Wednesday’s winner would like to see it implemented everywhere .
“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Elliott said. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road.
“Life ain’t fair, I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”
Harvick agreed with the rule’s success, saying that he thought it “went really well.” Runner-up Busch claimed he “thought it worked” after taking one track position risk and choosing the inside lane over the course of the night.
Drivers seemed to be in favor of the rule, and no noticeable negatives came from the opening trial. This would be worth revisiting again in a true points race down the road.
New Number Layout: Meh
Let me start this out by admitting that offset numbers are something for which I carry a personal distaste. That said, the ones seen in Wednesday’s race weren’t terrible. They ranged from unique and interesting to subpar and tacky.
In addition to the aforementioned underglow, NASCAR tested the idea of shifting the numbers on the side of each car back to the rear wheel well of every paint scheme, opening up valuable real estate on the side of the car for one or more sponsors to place a logo.
This isn’t a new concept in racing. Teams have flirted with the concept off and on for decades, and NASCAR has trialed the idea of moving the number in its minor tours. The ARCA Menards Series East & West tours were allowed to place numbers on the rear quarter panels starting in 2016, and both Whelen Euro Series and Pinty’s Series teams are afforded the same opportunity today.
For fans used to the traditional number placement under the door, Wednesday’s look was a bit of a culture shock. In the modern era, where sponsors and paint schemes can change by the week for nearly the entire field, the number is one of the few constant identifiers on the car.
The look can be a bit jarring. But in an era where maximizing sponsorship value and opportunities is paramount to consistent success and financial well-being, this might be a change for the better.
Schemes could also improve as designers have time and resources to devote to the new look, which opens up more space for logos and colors. Finding a balance on number size remains a challenge, but schemes like Ty Dillon’s No. 13 Geico Hump Day car show the potential for unique innovation within the concept.
There’s a sizable chance that this design change sees full-time implementation with the advent of the next-gen car, so this is a change we may all need to get used to.
Fans – Good… & Ugly
As Elliott emerged from his No. 9 Chevrolet victorious at the end of the race, he was greeted by the cheers of thousands of his fans. It all felt surprisingly normal – a notion that made the celebration all the more strange in the current era.
It was a pleasant moment of reprieve from the current COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t come without risk to all involved.
With coronavirus cases remaining high and at times rising over the summer months, many states and countries have extended or re-implemented stay-at-home orders and other lockdown rules in an attempt to manage the virus. That was one factor in the All-Star Race’s move from Charlotte Motor Speedway – where fans wouldn’t be allowed – to Bristol, with as many as 30,000 fans potentially welcomed.
Seeing adoring fans in those numbers certainly felt good for all involved. Elliott said as much after the race, admitting that he’d sneaked up into the grandstands with a mask on to watch the Open early in the night.
“To me tonight felt like an event again,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been missing that piece for a couple months. It just felt really good to get NASCAR back.
“I mean, NASCAR is built on the fans. Once the race starts, it’s hard to engage with them because you can’t hear them. Before a race, the atmosphere was energetic again. I felt like the vibe was back.”
Elliott took a calculated risk in going to the grandstands and another when he walked along the straightaway and engaged with a group of onlookers that had crowded around the catchfence to watch his celebration at the end of the night.
The Georgian is already locked into the playoffs, but a positive COVID-19 test could lead to one or more missed races – something that just happened to his teammate Jimmie Johnson two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Outside of pure competition, the potential health risk to all involved and the imagery presented as other sports continue to battle for a chance to return at all could also prove tough to reconcile if one or more members of the group tests positive for coronavirus in the future.
Hopefully all goes well and the Bristol crowd is a nonissue. But until a few quiet weeks have crept by it’ll be difficult not to carry a slight bit of unease about the way its event played out for those involved.