The NASCAR All-Star Race Needs a Reboot

After the fiasco known as the 2022 Pro Bowl, football fans have been expressing disgust and frustration at the NFL’s all-star event and how to improve it. My opinion, the NFL should do one of two things: 1) get rid of the game and make it a fan fest, or 2) have the game in the middle of the season as part of an “all-star break” like every other major American professional sports league. On the same day as the sordid scene called the Pro Bowl, another exhibition event was taking place. Within a temporary 1/4 mile oval track built inside the L.A. Coliseum, NASCAR was hosting the Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum. The Busch Clash is a long running pre-season exhibition race in NASCAR, being at the famed Daytona International Speedway from 1979-2021. 2021 saw the race on a Tuesday night instead of the long running Saturday night or Sunday afternoon before the Daytona 500 date due the the way the NFL schedule played out, and NASCAR didn’t want to run an event the same weekend as the Super Bowl. 2021 also saw the only iteration of the event on the Daytona road course layout instead of the oval. NASCAR experimented with the Clash at the L.A. Coliseum to test the waters of a new market and used lots of media hype to get there. While the Pro Bowl beat NASCAR in ratings, the experiment was successful with beating and banging short track racing on the bullring in the legendary stadium. The crowd was the biggest at the Clash in a long time, as attendance at Daytona had begun to dip. NASCAR preseason is an exhibition where the stars of racing go at it, NFL preseason is a scam for the season ticket holders. But NASCAR has another event to revamp, one that was just held this past weekend, the mid-season All-Star Race. Over the years, the All-Star Race lost its luster. It was once a can’t miss event, but now it’s viewed as a throwaway event. How did this happen and what could be done to fix it?

The NASCAR All-Star Race began in 1985 as The Winston, named that way because the NASCAR Cup Series was sponsored by the RJ Reynolds through their Winston cigarettes brand. The 1985 The Winston was a 70-lap contest with the race winners of the previous season. Darrell Waltrip won the race, leading 27 laps. His engine blew as soon as he finished, leading to many theories. The race was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway the week before the Coca-Cola 600 in 1985, then again from 1987-2019. In 1986, the race was held at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the abysmal attendance caused the race to be moved back to Charlotte. 2020 saw a move to the famed Bristol Motor Speedway due to pandemic restrictions in North Carolina. Beginning in 2021, the race was moved to the Texas Motor Speedway. Texas Motor Speedway has the largest jumbotron in the world, and the sole reason was to spite Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. One of the main selling points has always been the $1 million prize money. Eligibility requirements extend to all race winners of the previous season up through the points race this week before (for 2022, that race was Kansas), all former All-Star Race winners competing full-time in the Cup Series in 2022, and all former NASCAR Cup champions competing full-time in 2022. The All-Star Open is a 50-lap race held before the main All-Star Race in which drivers ineligible for the main event race their way in. The winners of the 3 All-Star Open segments plus the winner of the fan vote get in to the main event.

Now here lies the first problem: Formats. The All-Star Race has had a variety of formats throughout the years, and it feels NASCAR is getting a little too cutesy with the formats. The All-Star Race format for 2022 was 125 laps and goes as follows:

Segment 1 (25 laps): Winner of segment 1 will start on the pole for segment 4 if he finishes 15th or better in segments 2 and 3.

Segment 2 (25 laps): Winner of segment 2 will start second in segment 4 if he finishes 15th or better in segment 3.

Pit Stop Competition: Between segments 2 and 3, each team must perform a 4 tire pit stop. The team with the shortest time on pit road, including the time to get in and out of the pits, wins the pit stop competition. The winning driver will start 4th in segment 4 if he finishes 15th or better in segment 3.

Segment 3 (25 laps): Segment 3 winner starts 3rd in the final segment.

Segment 4 (50 laps): Segment 1 winner starts first, segment 2 winner second, segment 3 winner third, and pit stop competition winner fourth. If no “natural caution” occurs between laps 15-25, NASCAR will throw a competition caution.

And that’s just the race format. Wait until you see the qualifying format:

  • Opening round is the traditional single-car, one-lap format in reverse order of the current 2022 owner points.
  • Fastest eight qualifiers transfer to a three-round, head-to-head elimination bracket.
  • Elimination bracket will feature two cars staged in adjacent pit stalls near the end of pit road.
  • At the sound of an alert, each pit crew will perform a four-tire stop and, at the drop of the jack, drivers will exit their pit stalls (with no speed limit) onto the track.
  • First car back to the start/finish line advances to the next round.
  • Final pairing competes for the pole.

They just can’t make it simple, can they? Qualifying used to be a pit stop and 3 laps, with the combined time determining the starting order. And in terms of race formats, there’s been a long history of various formats. The first time an All-Star Race format was unpopular with fans was the infamous “Survival of the Fastest” format from 2002-2003. In an attempt to cash in on the success of CBS’s long-running reality TV game show Survivor, NASCAR introduced an elimination format where a certain number of drivers after each segment were eliminated. My proposal for a race format is to use the 70 laps format from 1992: Two segments of 30 and a final 10 lap segment. After the first 30 lap segment, have a full field invert. During the final 10 lap segment, only green flag laps count. Laps under caution don’t count in the final segment. I pose this segment because a long green flag run of 50 laps just didn’t work. Also, NASCAR better not use the “end under green” idea ever again. Ryan Blaney, a NASCAR young gun and fan favorite, was almost screwed out of a win due to this rule. He was about 200 feet away from the finish line when a driver in the back hit the wall with no impact on the finish (Blaney was so far ahead he was the only car in the shot) and NASCAR threw a caution and forced an overtime. Longtime announcer Mike Joy, who has been a part of 43 of 64 Daytona 500s, was as annoyed at the finish as the fans. That was scathing, as Joy always tries to be positive, even trying to defend Fox’s disastrous “Daytona Day” ad campaign for the Daytona 500. “I don’t know what to say,” said color analyst Clint Bowyer. “I do, but I won’t,” Joy replied.

I think a reason the All-Star Race has its prestige is stage racing. From 2013-2021, NASCAR used a car referred to as the Gen 6, as it was the sixth generation NASCAR race car. The Gen 6 was a very turbulent car, and that made passing darn near impossible. So in 2017, NASCAR introduced stage racing. The race was split into 3 chunks with a mandatory competition caution thrown after a certain amount of laps run with the top 10 getting awarded bonus points. For example, the Daytona 500 is 200 laps so the stages are 60/60/80. Since there’s only 3 stages a race, think of them like the periods in hockey. While I’ve gotten used to stages, I still would prefer NASCAR do away with them, but they won’t. The current Next Gen car has produced naturally exciting racing, and natural cautions increased. Stage racing messes up the flow of the race, and artificially increases how long the races last due to all the downtime from the mandatory cautions. What I’m saying is since all the races are split in stages, there’s nothing that makes the All-Star Race stand out.

A bigger reason is the track: Texas Motor Speedway. Texas is a track that’s hated among fans because it’s produced reducing quality of racing over the years and is the reason beloved classic tracks North Wilkesboro and Rockingham are no longer on the schedule. Track owner Bruton Smith bought North Wilkesboro and plundered its dates to give Texas a guaranteed spot on the 1997 NASCAR schedule (yes, this track has been around a while). He got one and the other was given to Roger Penske’s California Speedway. Then, a NASCAR fan named Francis Ferko filed a lawsuit against NASCAR, alleging they (NASCAR) were conspiring against Texas Motor Speedway and that it deserved two dates. This led to Rockingham falling. Texas hasn’t produced any level of decent racing since at least 2014. NASCAR has ruined the track with layers of PJ1 traction compound to make Texas more than a one groove track, and it’s effectively killed the IndyCar race at Texas, too. For the most part, the racing was single file along the bottom groove of the track only being broken up by cautions. The All-Star Race was moved to Texas as per the lawsuit and fact the All-Star Race contract is with tracks owned by Speedway Motors Inc. (SMI), and the racing has never been worse. Sure, the last few All-Star Races at Charlotte weren’t the best either, but the racing wasn’t nearly as much as a disaster as Texas. For some reason, Texas is a hill SMI is willing to die on and SMI president Marcus Smith effectively doubled down on Sirius XM NASCAR radio. Motorsports writer Jeff Gluck runs a Twitter poll after every race where he asks fans if the past NASCAR Cup Series race was good, and it was an overwhelming no. Sports Business Journal published a quote from long time NASCAR competitor Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owns 23XI Racing with NBA legend Michael Jordan, where he said, “It’s very hard to convince dinosaurs they must eat differently.”

The All-Star Race tries too hard. It’s a gimmick now. “You’re overthinking an exhibition race,” you say. But it’s still a professional race by one of the top racing leagues in America. It should be treated with some level of seriousness. The race ending almost screwing Blaney out of the win, and letting him finish with a fallen window net, is a farce. The tire problems showed Goodyear makes horrible tires, especially since a tire going down on Kyle Busch’s car led to a horrific crash involving him, Ross Chastain, and Chase Elliott. Here’s how I think the All-Star Race can be revived: Go all out. Have it be a street circuit or another temporary stadium oval like The Clash. Or, since the contract is with SMI, move it to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, as the new “superspeedway” layout has produced tight pack racing, or use it to revive tracks like Kentucky which are dormant. Chicagoland Speedway is another dormant track to revive with the All-Star Race, but it’s not owned by SMI and there’s been grumblings of it possibly making a return to the schedule anyways. The All-Star Race needs a hard reboot. Something must be done. The Clash hit rock bottom, and NASCAR took a huge risk rebooting it and it worked. The All-Star Race and The Clash are shorter than normal NASCAR Cup races, so they could serve as great introductions to the world of NASCAR. A simpler All-Star Race format would work. Much like the 2022 Pro Bowl, the 2022 All-Star Race was an embarrassment to NASCAR, the All-Star Race, and Texas Motor Speedway (not that it had much dignity left), and needs a serious reboot.

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