No points on the line, $1 million to the winner and bragging rights within NASCAR's home base of Charlotte, N.C. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race sure does its best to carve a space for itself within a grueling nine-month regular season.
Sometimes, it makes a mark, like last year's surprising spark in the form of an experimental rules package. The excitement and side-by-side racing that All-Star event produced led to NASCAR adopting those changes for 2019 on all intermediate style racetracks.
But even during that competitive Saturday night, Kevin Harvick ran away and hid in what's become the rule, not the exception in this race. Too often, 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway becomes a speedbump as aerodynamics allow the leader up front to scoot away. Just once in the last decade (2016) has there been a pass for the lead in the last five laps; the 2017 edition featured only three lead changes. That’s despite splitting the race into short segments and injecting all sorts of crazy rules into this exhibition run for the fans.
The boredom has caused critics to call the All-Star Race into question in recent years. Suggestions range from moving the event to a short track, like Bristol Motor Speedway, doing a full-field inversion halfway through or simply scrapping the race altogether.
The last option, to me, simply doesn't make sense. Every major sport has some form of All-Star competition that shines the spotlight on their best athletes. Phenomenal finishes in this event, like Davey Allison winning while spinning in 1992 helped put NASCAR on the national map.
So can this sport recover the magic? There's a trio of hungry drivers Saturday night in Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. still seeking their first win in this event after a decade of participation. The Open preliminary race, in which multiple drivers have a chance to transfer into the All-Star event, features young up-and-comers like William Byron, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson dueling it out for a spot in the field. A $1 million top prize is nothing to sneeze at.
But the drivers can only do so much if the cars won't cooperate. As a result, NASCAR is experimenting again by throwing some parts and pieces on the cars they're using for the new Gen-7 chassis design. (The Gen-7 is expected to be fully introduced in 2021). Their hope is that lightning strikes twice.
It may need to, as in 2019 and 2020, for Charlotte to hold onto this event. Major schedule changes loom on the horizon and there's little incentive for NASCAR to hold a race for the fans at this facility when the fans aren't tuning in to watch. It would be a huge blow to drivers and teams who love this two-week break at the end of May; it's a chance for everyone to sleep in their own beds and sneak in a little family time.
But the show must go on. So this weekend, Charlotte is very much in need of a show. That's what the All-Star Race is all about, right?
Monster Energy All-Star Race
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Saturday, Open race followed by the main event at 8 p.m.)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Race Winners
Fifteen (15) drivers have made the All-Star Race main event already. 13 were Cup Series race winners in either 2018 or 2019 while Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman earned a spot by being past winners of the event.
The other drivers who have already clinched a spot in the All-Star Race are Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr.
Who’s at the Back: Everyone Else
The other 24 drivers participating in this weekend's All-Star Race festivities need to race their way in through the preliminary Open event. The winners of each of three segments will earn a spot on the grid; then, a fan vote winner out of the 21 drivers remaining will lock in the final All-Star count at 19.
Kyle Busch has completed the sweep. Busch won Friday night's NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Charlotte, his fifth win in five starts this season. It was Busch's final race in the sport's third-tier division with new rules limiting how much Cup drivers can "dip" into lower series to compete.
The FOX network has worked their way into NASCAR sponsorship. Conservative host Tomi Lahren of FOX News and her show, "No Interruption,"backed the No. 44 of Angela Ruch in Friday night's Truck Series race at Charlotte. The partnership developed from a recent interview in which Ruch was promoting her documentary, "The Ruch Life."
Clint Bowyer has already "won" in his mind before the All-Star Race even began: he's on the pole. Bowyer has just two other pole positions in a 15-year, 481-start Cup career, both of which were notched way back in 2007.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins by Kyle Busch this season in nine starts dipping into NASCAR's lower series — Xfinity and Trucks.
Drivers that will run in the All-Star Race main event, the smallest field for the exhibition since 1988.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is the overwhelming favorite to win the All-Star Race at 4/1 odds. Brad Keselowski and defending winner Kevin Harvick are next up at 11/2.
What I Think
I’ll go with Kevin Harvick to get the 2019 monkey off his back and accomplish the rare feat of two NASCAR All-Star Race wins in a row.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.