Every sport touts its All-Star event as a rare opportunity for fans to watch the best and brightest test their skills against each other.
But NASCAR fans pretty much enjoy that every week. With infrequent exceptions, the best drivers compete against each other every race. That makes staging a special event like this weekend’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway a bit more of a challenge.
For example: In Major League Baseball, 80 players out of the 780 on the league’s active rosters — about 10% — compete in the mid-season All-Star Game. The 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race grid includes 24 cars, which is 65.4% of the typical race grid this year.
The upcoming All-Star Race is the largest field in terms of raw numbers since 2008, which also had 24 cars. But the typical 2008 starting grid was 43 cars, so the 2008 All-Star Race included only 55.8% of a typical field. The most drivers to participate in an All-Star Race is 27, which happened in 2002. That works out to 62.8% of a typical field.
The graph below shows how a typical All-Star Race field compares to the average race field for that year.
The Next Gen car has changed driver attitudes toward the playoffs. Most don’t feel as comfortable with ‘win and you’re in.’ They want at least two wins before they feel they’ve secured their place in the playoffs.
Perhaps it’s time to raise the bar on all-stars.
The good: Format, stakes and setting
North Wilkesboro is the perfect site for the All-Star festivities. The track is close enough to Charlotte that the teams get an effective two-week travel break given the Coca-Cola 600 the following week. The track has history and a special place in NASCAR.
I’ll reserve judgement on a second visit until I see how the logistics work out and how the race goes.
This year’s All-Star Race has a blissfully simple format: 200 laps with a break in the middle. There are some tire restrictions, but otherwise, it’s pretty similar to a standard race.
Setting the starting grid is equally straightforward, with two heat races, the Open and the fan vote winner. Qualifying was the pit-crew competition.
This is all good. The All-Star race should be an event that fans can invite their non-racing-fan friends over to see without having to spend the entire time explaining the format.
And who doesn’t like $1 million for winning a single race?
Raise the bar for automatic All-Star Race qualification
Instead of one race win as the bar for getting into the All-Star Race, let’s make it two wins.
This year, that would shift Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Chase Briscoe into the All-Star Open.
The starting field for the All-Star race would drop and more drivers would race in the Open. That leaves room for two heat races, with only the winners transferring. Let’s keep the pit crew challenge model: winners take everything. Finishing second is no better than finishing last.
I have an ulterior motive in forcing winners to race for a transfer spot into the All-Star Race. Since 1986, 82 drivers have transferred from the Open. Only three (3.65%) won the All-Star Race: Kyle Larson in 2019, Ryan Newman in 2002 and Michael Waltrip in 1996.
Twelve transferees led laps in the All-Star Race, but no transfer driver has led laps since Kyle Larson in 2019. A more competitive Open means that the drivers who transfer into the All-Star Race have a real shot at winning.
Keep the fan vote
I don’t like popularity votes for any reason except electing the most popular person. But I’d keep fan voting in the All-Star Race. First, voting for All-Star participants helps fans feel included. Second, it doesn’t affect the season championship.
The ultimate reason, though, is that the All-Star fan vote, which started in 2004, rarely impacts the All-Star Race. Out of the 19 races that included drivers voted in:
- One won the All-Star race (5.3%).
- Two placed in the top five (10.5%).
- Seven placed in the top 10 (36.8%).
- The remaining 12 drivers finished 13th or worse.
Kasey Kahne is the only driver to have won the fan vote and the All-Star Race in the same year. He’s also the only voted-in driver to lead laps (17) in the All-Star Race. Five drivers have won the fan vote and the All-Star Race, but the other four won the race in different years than they won the fan vote.
Chase Elliott is the only other voted-in driver to make in the top five, finishing fifth in 2018.
So why not keep the fan vote? The fans have their say in who competes and one driver gets a (very slim) chance to win. If this year’s fan-vote driver wins, he knows he will be remembered at every All-Star Race in the future.
All-Stars usually win the All-Star Race
The All-Star Race winner finished the season outside the top 15 only three times.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2000
- Jamie McMurray in 2014
- Geoffrey Bodine in 1994
Seven All-Star winners failed to finish the season in the top 10.
For three drivers, their All-Star win was the only win they had that year.
- Waltrip in 1996
- McMurray in 2014
- Ryan Blaney in 2022
Of the winners…
- Almost a third (31.6%) of All-Star Race winners went on to win the championship that year.
- More than half of All-Star Race winners (55.3%) finished the season in the top three.
- Almost three-quarters (71.1%) finished in the top five.
- Only seven drivers failed to win more than one points race the season they won the All-Star Race.
The proposed format change has little potential to change the race’s outcome, but it would raise the bar on what we recognize as All-Stars.