The NASCAR Cup Series’ All-Star Race scheduled for Texas Motor Speedway this weekend is an exhibition event that is designed to produce a combination of excitement and mayhem.
To that end, it has undergone many format and rule changes to make it more challenging for the drivers and teams and more interesting for the fans.
It’s been around for 36 years. Its name has changed repeatedly depending on the series sponsor – Winston, Winston Select, Nextel, Sprint, Monster Energy, etc. – until, given that NASCAR doesn’t have a major single series sponsor, it became simply the All-Star Race.
This year marks only the third time in the event’s history that it has not been held at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was conducted at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1986 (a dud) and at Bristol Motor Speedway last year.
It was no secret why the race remained in Charlotte for so many years. The track’s president, Humpy Wheeler, was a master showman who knew fans needed more entertainment than merely a race. CMS races came loaded with spectacular pre-race shows.
What better way to make the All-Star Race colorful and special than to shower it with bells, whistles and fireworks?
By the way, Bristol and Texas, like Charlotte, are a part of Speedway Motorsports Inc., so don’t think the fireworks will go unlit.
I said earlier that the race has undergone several rule and format changes. This year, well, suffice it to say there are so many restructures and realignments, it’s hard to follow it all.
There will be six stages of racing, that much I know. Beyond that, I don’t have the time to write ‘em all out for you, and you don’t have the time to read ‘em.
However, thankfully one thing about the All-Star Race has remained unchanged – the race-ending 10-lap “shootout.”
If there is going be any excitement and mayhem in the All-Star Race, they are most likely to happen in the “shootout.”
The reason is simple: After all the stages, inverted starts and other what-have-yous have taken place earlier, the final 10 laps are devoid of stunts. There is no strategy. It’s every man for himself, and the guy who gets to the finish lined first earns a cool $1 million.
In the history of the All-Star Race, it is the “shootout” that has provided nearly all the excitement and mayhem.
If there is anything else drivers like more than to race each other freely, hard and with no concern for the other guy’s welfare – and for a great deal of money – I don’t know what it is.
In years past, the All-Star Race has been full of nail-biting finishes created by the “shootout.” There was Dale Earnhardt’s slugfest with Bill Elliott that created the legendary “Pass in the Grass” (it wasn’t) in 1987.
Rusty Wallace punted Darrell Waltrip in 1989 to earn a widely controversial and criticized victory. Crewmen fought, Waltrip fumed – “I hope he chokes on that $200,000” – and fans booed.
It took Wallace the rest of the season and the Winston Cup championship to win back fan allegiance.
The race was held under the lights for the first time in 1992 – which made it a widely anticipated event.
After a spirited battle, the issue came down to Davey Allison and Kyle Petty. They crashed heavily at the finish line, and Allison slammed into the wall as he took the checkered flag.
He was knocked unconscious, but he was the winner. He had to be told he won the race.
There have been many such finishes over the years, but to me, the one that is most memorable and unique – although not nearly as dramatic as some – came in 1996.
In that year, the All-Star Race, then known as the Winston Select, was won by a driver who had not won a Cup race in 12 years and 309 starts.
The only reason he was in the event was that he had finished fifth in the Open, an event contested among drivers who had not qualified the All-Star Race.
It used to be that only the top-two finishers in the Open were eligible to advance. In 1995, that number had been increased to the top five.
Michael Waltrip finished fifth. The driver for Wood Brothers Racing moved on – just barely.
But he said later he learned something. His Ford ran faster and smoother at the bottom of the track. That knowledge proved to make all the difference.
Understand, by 1996, Waltrip was thought of as the younger brother of the successful Darrell and not so much as a competitive driver. The media called him Mikey – a name which he may not have liked but accepted.
In the final laps of the race, Waltrip found himself in third place as Earnhardt and Terry Labonte fought for the lead. With nine laps to go, the two bumped and drifted high into the first turn.
Waltrip immediately cut his Ford to the bottom of the track to miss the incident and go where his car was most comfortable and effective.
He stayed in the lead, held off Wallace and was victorious.
True, the victory was in an exhibition race, not one that awarded points. But Waltrip didn’t care.
“I smell like champagne,” he said when asked about the validity of the victory. “I’ve got confetti on me and I just won one of the biggest races of the year with the Wood Brothers. I swear it feels a whole lot like a win to me.”
It was another five years before Waltrip would win a points race, the 2001 Daytona 500 in which his friend and team owner Earnhardt perished.
Waltrip won four races in his career, three at Daytona International Speedway (twice in the 500) and once at Talladega Superspeedway.
But in one man’s opinion, his most significant win came in a very anticipated, publicized race in which he was not even a blimp on the radar. He was almost totally ignored; never given one whiff as a contender.
Yet he beat the best.
That’s the stuff of NASCAR lore. And the All-Star Race of 2021 may provide us with yet another chapter.