From an inauspicious beginning to the current full-bloom Saturday-night spectacle, the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race always has combined competition and promotion, resulting in three decades of memorable results and, since 2003, million-dollar payouts to the winners.
It started in 1985 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, moved south to Atlanta Motor Speedway in ’86 and returned to CMS in 1987.
Those first two years, it had the air of a novelty act.
The third year turned it into a headliner.
That was the year of the famed “Pass in the Grass” that really was more of a bold blocking move by Dale Earnhardt against Bill Elliott than an actual, bona fide pass. Nonetheless, Earnhardt won, Elliott was incensed and the event’s mystique was engaged.
The race has remained at Charlotte Motor Speedway, eventually moving to a night-time/prime-time slot. The format has been altered a number of times through the years but several constants form the foundation of the event’s electric appeal:
The current locked-in field features all race winners, dating back to the 2013 Daytona 500. Two additional berths are awarded to the top-two finishers in the “Sprint Showdown” on Friday night, NASCAR’s version of a “last-chance race” featuring drivers who have not won in 2013 or 2014, or who are not a previous winner of the event in the past 10 seasons. One final berth goes to the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote.
The 90-lap/135-mile race will conclude with a 10-lap “shootout.” Fans love a good shootout.
And then, there’s that little matter of the $1 million payout to the winner.
There’s an added wrinkle this year – hey, it wouldn’t be an all-star race without one – affecting the Sprint Showdown and Sprint Fan Vote berths. In the past, the showdown was run on the same day as the all-star race with the fan vote winner announced prior to the all-star race. This year, the showdown and the fan vote announcement will take place on Friday night. That will enable those three drivers to be involved in the all-star qualifying session on Saturdaynight, opening up the possibility that a non-winner could still snag the all-star pole.
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) holds the record for most NASCAR Sprint All-Star victories with four, including the last two years; Johnson has nudged by Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt on that all-time victory list.
Johnson has the record. Gordon has the momentum, coming off a win last week at Kansas Speedway and now looking at two weeks of racing in Charlotte. Twenty years ago at CMS, Gordon got his very first NASCAR Sprint Cup win, in the Coca-Cola 600, which will be run at CMS on May 25.
“To follow [Kansas] going to Charlotte, a place that I love, I love racing at Charlotte, and to be at home and also race … [the all-star event] is just one of those races where you go all‑out, and it’s more about pride and honor and just kind of showing your competitors what you can do,” Gordon said.
“So we’re going to be pushing really, really hard to follow up with a great performance there.”