Over the years, NASCAR has used its All-Star Race as an outlet to experiment with potential changes in the sport. Not only will that be the case again in the 2020 edition on Wednesday night; it will be perhaps the most experimental of the 36 events in All-Star history.
Exploratory elements are being tried in many facets of the event, from the organization of restarts to the appearance of the cars to even those in the stands.
Even the race’s location is something new this year, as the race is held at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time; it’s only the second time it’s been run anywhere other than the sport’s hub in Charlotte (the 1986 All-Star Race was at Atlanta). The race moved to Bristol in part due to the local government’s willingness to host some fans (more on that later), but could be a sign the event could rotate sites in the future, as some have called for.
The development with competitive impact, one which could potentially be implemented at some or all tracks in the future (albeit likely not the imminent future) is the “choose rule” on restarts. Each car, not just the leader, will choose which lane they will restart in.
This adds a strategic element to restarts, particularly at a track where the outside line typically takes off on restarts quite a bit more than the inside lane. The leader, who has always had lane choice, will likely continue to choose the outside of the front row at Bristol. But now the second place car has a choice: line up on the inside of the front row and take your chances in the less-optimal lane, or line up on the outside behind the leader with the thought that the outside of the second row is a better spot to be in. If the second-place car takes the outside, it would give the third-place car the opportunity to line up on the inside of the front row, or they could also choose the outside.
There is likely to be many opinions among the 20-driver field which lane they would prefer to be in from a given position, and that should make each restart that much more interesting throughout the event.
The choose rule is common at the local short-track level, as I’ve seen in action at Bowman Gray Stadium. Bristol’s banking makes it different than most of those short tracks, which are flat and result in a huge advantage for the inside lane — but the rule actually makes even more sense at a track with an outside advantage, because it avoids the advantage of fourth place over third (or sixth over fifth, etc.) that a traditional restart presents. The choose rule should prevent the practice we’ve seen at some tracks in recent years of cars letting up at the end of pit road to fall back a position but into a more desirable spot on the grid (i.e. fourth vs. third)
This is not the first time NASCAR has experimented with restarts in its All-Star Race. Double-file restarts were used for many years in the All-Star Race, and demand from both the fans and the competitors for them to be used in points-paying races grew over time, before NASCAR made the change mid-season in 2009.
As the cars line up for each restart, they’ll have a different appearance. The car number on the side of each car will be moved back closer to the rear tire than normal, leaving more room on the door panel for sponsor exposure.
Car numbers have been experimented with in regional NASCAR series and on the sport’s virtual platforms including iRacing, with the numbers anywhere from just behind the front tires to the rear quarter panels. While tonight the car number placement won’t be as radically different as some of those, it will nonetheless be noticeable.
Personally, after the car numbers have been at the center of the door panel for 72 years of NASCAR history, I don’t see why they should change now. That said, some teams have been creative with their paint schemes and their sponsor logos in the new format.
Another appearance change — one which is almost certainly not under permanent consideration but is being used to add an extra eye-catcher to the race’s under-the-lights aesthetic — is the use of underglow on the cars, similar to that of the cars in the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise. Each manufacturer will reportedly have a designated color (it would have been better if they matched the color to each car’s paint scheme, but I digress) as each car in the field will add a touch of neon to its display.
All of the cars that are locked into the All-Star Race will have underglow lights. pic.twitter.com/XZzZ1Hnzxc— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) July 9, 2020
From a more broad perspective, perhaps the night’s biggest experiment will not be related to the competition, but instead those watching it. Wednesday’s race is expected to be the most-attended sporting event in the U.S. since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; Bristol Motor Speedway offered 30,000 tickets — about 18.5% of the track’s seating capacity of 162,000 — and is believed to have sold about 25,000 of those tickets for the race.
The fans will be spread out through the venue, will be required to wear mask at congregated areas like restrooms and concessions, and had to sign a risk waiver to purchase their ticket.
Obviously this experiment is potentially less harmless than the others, given the global health situation, and there are sure to be many interested onlookers from around the sports and entertainment worlds watching to see how the event is carried out, from a crowd-control and logistical standpoint, and whether or not COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks will be traced back to the bleachers at Bristol.
There have been many new ideas tried in the All-Star Race over the years, in addition to double-file restarts. The 1992 event was the first superspeedway race held at night; in 2001, after a rain shower on the first lap caused half the field to crash, NASCAR allowed the teams to race their backup cars upon the race’s resumption. Even the idea of stage racing can be indirectly traced back to the All-Star Race, as it has been divided into segments since its inception in 1985.
And now, in the midst of a season that the sport has been forced to do a lot of things differently, its All-Star event will be a testing ground for new ideas once again.
2020 NASCAR All-Star Race
(Position, Driver, Car No., Owner, Manufacturer)
1. Martin Truex Jr., 19, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2. Alex Bowman, 88, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
3. Ryan Blaney, 12, Team Penske, Ford
4. Justin Haley, 77, Spire Motorsports, Toyota
5. Kevin Harvick, 4, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
6. Matt Kenseth, 42, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
7. Kurt Busch, 1, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
8. Cole Custer, 41, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
9. Brad Keselowski, 2, Team Penske, Ford
10. Kyle Busch, 18, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
11. Ryan Newman, 6, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
12. Joey Logano, 22, Team Penske, Ford
13. Chase Elliott, 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
14. Jimmie Johnson, 48, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
15. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
16. Erik Jones, 20, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
17. All-Star Open Stage 1 winner
18. All-Star Open Stage 2 winner
19. All-Star Open Stage 3 winner
20. Fan Vote winner
Winners since 2000
(Year, Driver, Owner, Manufacturer)
2019 — Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2018 — Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
2017 — Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2016 — Joey Logano, Team Penske, Ford
2015 — Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
2014 — Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2013 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2012 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2011 — Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
2010 — Kurt Busch, Penske Racing, Dodge
2009 — Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
2008 — Kasey Kahne, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Dodge
2007 — Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
2006 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2005 — Mark Martin, Roush Racing, Ford
2004 — Matt Kenseth, Roush Racing, Ford
2003 — Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2002 — Ryan Newman, Penske Racing, Ford
2001 — Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
2000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chevrolet