The past three decades have featured unprecedented growth and change in NASCAR.
Nothing epitomizes that transformation more than the sport’s annual All-Star event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Since its inception in 1985 the All-Star Race has changed its name, location (run in 1986 in Atlanta) and format and rules (virtually every year). Its payday for the winner has grown from $200,000 to more than $1 million.
Through the years, the annual All-star events have lifted some the sport’s biggest names – Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki and Jeff Gordon – to even loftier heights through their daring actions to capture the race’s high-dollar prize.
But money and on-track dramatics aside, among drivers there remains a common desire to win, to enjoy the spotlight – even for just one weekend – while being proclaimed the best of the best.
There are no points on the line. The race is run in front of more family members and friends of drivers than likely any other during the season. And for a day, nothing matters other than the win.
There is no other day in a NASCAR season quite like it.
“It’s a really fun race. That’s the first word that comes to mind,” said Jamie McMurray, the winner of last season’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. “The whole weekend is laid back. It’s intense, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s one of two races all year where there are no points, so everybody runs all out all weekend.”
Although from much a different era, McMurray’s take on the race differs little from that of Waltrip, who won the race’s first installment.
“It’s truly a unique race weekend. You have concerts. You have pre-race shows. It’s truly an event for the fans,” Waltrip said. “This race has created for our sport a really dramatic, exciting, unpredictable weekend, and when these drivers go home, all they care about is whether they won a million dollars.”
As the 30th anniversary of the all-star race is unveiled Saturday night, the focus will differ little from when Waltrip took the green flag in 1985.
The format has changed again – 20 more laps of racing were added this year – and then there’s the money, of course.
“Let me put it in perspective: It took five All-Star Races for the five winners to make that much money,” Waltrip said of McMurray’s seven-figure payout. “But that’s a good thing.
“I’m happy I won $200,000. It’s the biggest payday I ever had. I’m also happy our sport is in the shape it’s in and we have the fan support and the sponsor support to be able to pay the winner of the Sprint All-Star Race a million bucks.”
In the end, though, all that is generally remembered from this race is who won and if something spectacular happened along the way to Victory Lane.
“This is an amazing race. I’ve been fortunate enough to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. But the All-Star race is different,” McMurray explained about his 2014 victory. “It’s about having a good time and doing your best.”
During the course of a 36-race schedule throughout the year, there are times one’s best isn’t good enough. Circumstances in the race, as much as a fast car and driver skill, can often decide the outcome.
The All-Star Race – at least on the surface – attempts to level the playing field and removes the focus on a season’s worth of performance and directs it to one 10-lap shootout.
“There’s something a little special about the All-Star Race,” said McMurray’s car owner, Chip Ganassi. “It’s hammer down there with 10 to go.
“I think we saw a special kind of racing, and we’re all very lucky to see that.”
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This year’s all-star format
▪ This year’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race will feature four 25-lap segments, then a 10-lap shootout to the checkered flag.
▪ All laps will be counted during Segments 1, 2 and 3, and teams have the option to pit during breaks. All laps will also be counted during Segment 4. A driver’s average finish after the first four segments will determine the order onto pit road for a mandatory four-tire pit stop before the final 10-lap run.
▪ In the 10-lap shootout, only green flag laps will count.