Once unique, NASCAR All-Star Race now ordinary

Jared C. Tilton

Ballyhooed as the race where anything goes, the All-Star Race at Charlotte is now merely just another stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

With a select field, a condensed format and an emphasis on winning, and winning alone, the All-Star Race was unlike anything else in NASCAR when initially conceived.

It was a spectacle for the best drivers the sport had to offer under the guise of an anything-goes, utilizing a format designed to resemble shootouts typically seen on a local short track.

But on the 30th anniversary of NASCAR's annual all-star event, the luster that once accompanied the proceedings has noticeably diminished. The memorable moments are fewer. The uniqueness all but disappeared.

Now, in terms of presentation and execution, the All-Star Race feels very much like just another event on the Sprint Cup schedule that stretches from February to November.

When the All-Star Race began in 1985, the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway was distinctive. Only its sister track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, was similarly sized. When Charlotte added lights in 1992 it further added to the allure, as the speedway was the only big track to host a night race.

Now, the All-Star Race is disguised by the other 11 Cup races staged on similarly sized tracks -- six of which are run in the evening with two others finishing at night. Just last week , there was a Saturday night race at Kansas Speedway, another mile-and-a-half oval with predominantly the same field. How does the casual observer differentiate?

Further blurring the line is the fact that the "winning is everything" mantra is no longer exclusive to just the All-Star Race. NASCAR has done its best to eradicate points racing and stress the importance of winning. A win in today's world virtually guarantees a driver a coveted spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The vigor, determination and indifference to scoring points, all once exclusive to the All-Star Race, are now prevalent every week. Witness current championship leader Jeff Gordon declaring several times this season how he would gladly exchange his points lead for a couple of wins.

But the underlying question is this: What can be done to jump-start a sagging event? Everything from constant tweaks to the format to eliminations have been enacted with little effect since the turn of the century.

Through the myriad changes, one option has yet to be implemented, though it is probably the most drastic -- a change of venues. Only once has Charlotte not hosted the All-Star Race, and that second edition held at Atlanta in 1986 drew a tepid crowd.

But the idea of rotating the All-Star Race is gaining traction, touted by both Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Friday. Kenseth envisions taking the event to tracks currently not included on the Cup schedule, which would expand NASCAR's reach.

"I think that would be great for all those markets that don't have a NASCAR race," Kenseth said. "I think you would sell them out whether that's 30,000 or 40,000 people, whatever that is. I think the racing would be good and it's not a points race. I think that would expose a lot of fans to our product live that don't get to see it now. I think it would be fun."

Shifting the exhibition race is an idea with merit and would again separate it from races that award points and count toward the championship. But would that even be enough?

"You could run it at Bristol ten years in a row and some are going to be awesome and some aren't," Earnhardt said. "It's just the same way you're going to have it here. I think that the venue can make a little bit of a difference, but we just have to hope that everything works out in our favor and we get an exciting finish however it needs to happen. And sometimes it will and sometimes it won't."

So until a shift in either philosophy or venues, the All-Star Race continues on. It's almost a relic from another era, a time when caring solely about winning and not points was anomalous. Because in its current state, it's now everything it once was the antithesis of -- ordinary.

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