When considering a new concept for an event, it’s generally agreed that the simpler the concept is, the more likely it will be to succeed. The fewer words that have to be used to explain what’s intended to take place, the easier potential fans can grasp and embrace it. In case you haven’t gotten the memo yet (and many of you apparently haven’t), this year, NASCAR’s seasonal non-points-paying (and thus largely pointless in so many ways) All-Star Race has been moved to Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, June 13, as always weather permitting.
The All-Star event for NASCAR racers dates all the way back to 1985 when it debuted under its original name of “The Winston” and was held the night before that year’s World 600, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The original concept for the event was pretty straightforward. During the 1984 Cup season, 12 different Cup drivers had won an event. Those 12 drivers and only those 12 drivers got to compete in the All-Star event. Finishing second doesn’t (or didn’t) make you a star. It makes you “first loser.”
The event was 70 laps around the mile-and-a-half track. Drivers were required to make at least one pit stop to get their crews a little spotlight too. That didn’t make a bit of difference in that no stock car was going to make 70 laps at Charlotte without stopping for fuel anyway.
The format didn’t take much explaining, but there was still a rulebook in play, the same as any other race weekend. But the winner and his team chose to throw it right out the window as they allegedly had many times before. Darrell Waltrip, driving for Junior Johnson, is credited with winning that first Winston. It has been widely alleged, and never too passionately denied by those involved, that the engine in Waltrip’s winning car was oversized — and not just by a little. We’ll never know. As he crossed the finish line, that engine in Waltrip’s car puked most of its reciprocating assembly either through the block or out the bottom of the oil pan. Kind of hard to measure cubic inch displacement when that happens. As it stands written in the Book of Bobby Weir, “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.”
I’ll admit to having one of those WTF moments when I reviewed this year’s format for the All-Star Race. Put a bit more politely than my initial attempt at this column, my reaction was “Are you kidding me? Someone really wants this event to fail and to do so to an epic degree.”
In essence, this year’s All-Star Race will be run in six stages, though they seem to be calling them “segments” or “rounds” this time around. Because after all, longtime NASCAR fans have been vocal in their affection for stage racing. Well, other than the fact they almost universally hate the format. That’s not to say there aren’t some fans who like the stage racing format; there are.
But by and large, NASCAR fandom has treated stage racing the same way those of us rushed the local grocery stores in April of 1985 to get our stockpiles of New Coke secured. Only nobody actually did that. New Coke was one of the greatest marketing disasters in the modern era. Not surprisingly rebranding New Coke “Coke 2” and a half-hearted marketing campaign marketing it in 1990 failed to reverse the issue. Somewhere around here I have a diorama with a can of New Coke and a diecast of a Mustang II inside of it.
The first four rounds of this year’s All-Star Race will be 15 laps apiece, with caution laps not counting towards that total, as I understand it. Yep, 15 laps is just about enough to get the cars warmed up and the tires up to temperature. It’s also about how long the TV networks are willing to go without a built-in excuse for a commercial break. Segment five will be 30 laps in length. Segment six will be a 10-lap sprint to the finish.
There will be no qualifying for this year’s event, so the starting lineup will be determined by a random draw. I hate to see the format used but it’s only a minor irritation.
Seventeen drivers are automatically eligible for this year’s event, having won a race either this year or last. They are (alphabetically) Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. If any previous winners of either the Cup title or a previous All-Star event were still competing full time in the Cup series they’d have been guaranteed a spot too, but there are no such drivers active in the Cup series, so don’t expect to see Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon try to enter at the last minute. Any Cup driver who wins a race this year between now and the All-Star race will make his way into the field as well.
The final way to make the race is through the All-Star Open which will take place directly before the All-Star Race itself. The winner of each of the three stages of the Open will also earn a slot in the All-Star Race. In addition, one driver who stay hasn’t made the field will get in by winning the fan vote.
After the first segment (or stage or round or whatever you want to call it), the field will be inverted by another random draw. Somewhere between eight and 12 cars will be inverted. Again, that will be determined by a random draw. Humpy Wheeler once told me that if the crowd got a vote, they’d always vote to invert the maximum amount of cars allowed. A random draw plays no favorites. After segment two, the entire field will be inverted.
For round four, again, a random draw will be used to determine how many cars (between eight and 12 again) will be inverted prior to the start of the segment.
Again, segment five is the long one at 30 laps. This time, rather than a random draw inverting drivers, the individual drivers’ finishes in the first four segments will be added together cumulatively. That at least introduces some degree of driver skill rather than sheer randomness (which has no place at a race track in big league motorsports, or so says I). The driver with the lowest cumulative finish starts first, with the driver with the second lowest cumulative finish beside him, etc. During segment five, drivers must make a four-tire pit stop, with a cash bonus going to the team with the fastest stop.
The drivers will line up for the sixth and final segment in the order they finish in segment five. That at least makes sense. But overall, the entire format seems too gimmicky and random for an actual competitive sporting event.
The All-Star event has been tweaked before, and the changes have not always been well received by the fans or even the participants. The second Winston was moved from Charlotte to Atlanta. As originally conceived, the event was to move track to track annually. But NASCAR tried making another change that didn’t go over so well. Traditionally, NASCAR took two weekends off during the season, Easter and Mothers’ Day. And as it turned out, those Southern dads and lads really didn’t want to disrespect their moms or wives on Mothers’ Day.
Also that year, there were only nine drivers qualified for the event by having won a Cup race the previous year. To make it a nice round 10 drivers, NASCAR added another driver to the field, Geoff(rey) Bodine, who was the highest finisher in the 1985 Cup points standings without a win.
Whether it was the short field of drivers or the date conflict with Mother’s Day, I can’t say, but attendance at that race was dreadful. In 1986, the Winston was moved back to Charlotte, where, under the patient tutelage of Humpy Wheeler, it thrived and became a fan favorite.
The race also became a favorite of crew members and drivers alike. Most of them live in or around Charlotte. With the Winston run the Saturday previous to Memorial Day weekend, and the World 600 run Memorial Day weekend itself, it gave the crew members a couple weeks at home mid-season to celebrate with their kids and spouses.
Last year, of course, was “the season that almost wasn’t.” The All-Star race got penciled in at the last moment and was run on July 15 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The move to Bristol allowed the event to be run in front of a select number of fans, which wasn’t allowed in North Carolina due to the Pandemic. (30,000 fans were allowed to attend, which was a large number by standards of the day but looked sparse given the size of the track and the 162, 000 seats available.) Chase Elliott won the 2020 All-Star Race, edging Kyle Busch by .418 seconds.
As NASCAR prepared this year’s much-revised schedule, it appeared Texas might only host one race in 2021 (the Cup schedule also includes a road course race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin), but they were apparently able to grab up the All-Star event as well and do anything they damn well pleased with it, it would seem, given the ball of confusion we are left with regarding the rules we’re now presented.
Maybe I’m off-base and the fans will grasp and embrace the new All-Star concept as enthusiastically as they did pop-top beer. But I have my doubts, not only about the new rules, but about the entire All-Star race concept’s ongoing validity. In the stick-and-ball sports world, various teams only play one another occasionally, if at all. In stock car racing, the alleged greatest drivers in the world compete against each other in every event anyway.