KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (May 17, 2012) – The name of the race has changed a handful of times, and its format seems to get adjusted each and every year, but the ultimate goal remains the same. Win.
That is the only mainstay of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, the non-points event for recent winners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (2011-2012), as well as past All-Star Race victors and former series champions held annually at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
This year’s edition totals 90 laps around the 1.5-mile oval, and it’s broken into four, 20 lap segments and then a final 10-lap shootout that’s kicked-off by a pit stop where teams will need to decide if they want to take fuel only or grab two or four fresh tires.
Ask Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/National Wild Turkey Federation Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), if he’s familiar with any of the various tweaks to the 28-year-old event, such as the winners of the first four segments being guaranteed to enter the pits in the top-four starting spots prior to the 10-lap dash to the finish (provided their cars are on the lead lap), and he’ll simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Suuurrrrrrrrrrre.” The format is of little matter to Stewart, for as long as there’s a checkered flag at the end, he knows what to do, as evidenced by his win in the 2009 All-Star Race.
Stewart led only once for two laps in that event, but they were the most important ones. He paced the final two circuits after getting by Matt Kenseth for the lead on lap 98 of the 100-lap contest. Stewart’s margin of victory over the 2003 Sprint Cup champion was .971 of a second.
It was Stewart’s first victory as a driver/owner with SHR, the team he co-owns with Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world. The win made Stewart the first driver/owner to win a Sprint Cup-sanctioned event since Ricky Rudd won a point-paying race in October 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It was also the first All-Star Race win for Stewart, who had six top-10 finishes in 10 previous starts in the event. Stewart became the second driver/owner to win the All-Star Race, joining Geoff Bodine, who accomplished the feat in 1994.
The victory was Stewart’s first in 11 tries, and the soon-to-be-41-year-old – his birthday is May 20 – has been a part of the All-Star Race since his rookie year in 1999. Way back in what used to be known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Stewart advanced into The Winston – the event we currently call the All-Star Race – by winning The Winston Open (now known as the Sprint Showdown). Stewart used the promotion for all it was worth, as he came from his last-place starting spot to finish second to winner Terry Labonte.
Since Stewart has won at least one race in every season he’s competed in the Sprint Cup Series, he’s always been a member of the elite All-Star Race. Back in the All-Star Race for a 14th straight season, Stewart is looking to grab another All-Star win and pick up his fourth NASCAR-sanctioned checkered flag to add to the ones he earned in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
For obvious reasons, a win would be ideal. But if victory isn’t in the cards, 90 laps of track time at night is a precious commodity.
NASCAR has a testing ban at all tracks that host its top-three national touring series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck. As such, time on the track in actual race conditions is impossible to come by, with the lone exception being Saturday night’s All-Star Race.
While winning is at the forefront of each driver’s mind, gaining valuable information for how their car will react in the following weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 is just as important. With 400 laps being run on the same track, what’s learned in the All-Star Race’s 90 laps is applicable to what drivers will face in the longest race on the Sprint Cup schedule.
The All-Star Race literally provides a win-win scenario for drivers and their teams. The drivers get to vie for a $1 million victory with no points on the line, and the teams they’re racing for get a sneak peek at what they’ll experience in one of the biggest races of the Memorial Day weekend.
For Stewart and his No. 14 team, they’re going all in to this year’s All-Star Race, all over again.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/National Wild Turkey Federation Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Are you familiar with the format of this year’s All-Star Race?
“It’s not hard to figure out. I know that it’s a no-holds-barred 90 laps and you could swear that we’re short-track racing on a big mile-and-a-half track.
“It doesn’t matter to me what they do with the format. Whatever it is, the goal is still to win it. So, whether it’s 10 laps, 40 laps, two-tire pit stop, four-tire pit stop – it doesn’t matter to us. The important thing is that it puts on a good show for our fans. At the same time, you’ll figure it out. Whatever the format is, these teams figure out what’s the best way to accomplish that goal.
“I like the individual segments. I think it’s going to add a lot of excitement. I think it’s going to make it to where the class of the field will be up front where they belong. And, those four guys that win those four segments will be the four guys to watch at the end of this thing. It’s going to put an emphasis on each segment on trying to get into those first two rows.”
Because the All-Star Race is a non-points event, does it take on the same kind of importance as a regular, point-paying race?
“It’s an event for the fans and that’s something that’s very important to us, but there’s a lot of bragging rights, too. Charlotte is an area where 95 percent of the Cup teams are based, so when you go there, you want to run well. You’re able to have guys come from the shop that don’t get a chance to travel. They don’t get a chance to come to the racetrack very often and see the fruits of their labor, so for them to come to the All-Star Race and see their cars run, especially when you have a good night, it really pumps up your organization. You do it for your fans, but at the same time, you do it for your organization and your team. That’s why the All-Star Race is important.”
The 2009 season was your 11th in Sprint Cup, but your first as a driver/owner. How much of your win in the All-Star race was a sense of relief and how much of it was a sense of exhilaration?
“Well, we’d been running well before the All-Star Race, but I don’t think any of us had an expectation of when we thought we’d win a race. I felt in my heart that the team was capable of winning a race in the first year at some point, but I never would’ve dreamed it was going to be one of the biggest races of the year, especially in our backyard. I think that’s really what made it so big – that it happened much sooner than a lot of people anticipated. There were a lot of people that didn’t know what to think about what we were trying to do. I think it really sent a message about how dedicated our organization is to being successful. It kind of quieted a lot of the naysayers and a lot of people that were on the fence trying to decide if I’d made a good decision or not (to become a team owner). I think standing there on the stage and getting the check was a pretty good statement.”
What stood out the most about your win in the All-Star Race?
“Probably the best part was the fact that it was the first chance that Gene (Haas) had gotten to come and watch the team run. For him to come to the track and the first night out, go to victory lane – that was a pretty cool welcome back party for him. That made it a huge night for the organization to be able to have everybody there and not feel like somebody got left out. Everybody was there and present for it. Guys that don’t get a chance to come to the track, get to come to the track that weekend. So, it was cool to get guys in victory lane for the first time.”
What’s the best thing about winning the All-Star Race?
“Well, the greatest thing about it is, if you win the thing from a car owner’s standpoint, which I know very well, now, it’s a great way to pay bills. It helps that out quite a bit. This weekend’s a fun event. It’s not a typical Cup race, by any means. The format is strictly set up for an exciting finish for the fans. It’s cool. It’s a big deal when we come to Charlotte and it’s not because of anything more than the fact that the guys who work at the shop everyday and don’t get a chance to go to the racetrack, they get a chance to go to Charlotte. They get to come see their racecars that they work on during the week. Instead of just watching them on TV, they get to be there, they get to see what the road crews are doing, and they get to be there first-hand. And that’s a big sense of pride if you have a good night. And to be able to celebrate with guys who never get to go to the track, if you can win a race at Charlotte, it’s big. This weekend, we’re racing for $1 million. That’s definitely nothing to pass off lightly.”
Can the All-Star Race be used as a test session for the Coca-Cola 600?
“Absolutely. It always is. If your car is driving well, you’re running for $1 million. But if your car isn’t driving well, you’re learning from that and applying it to the 600 instead. I’ve always looked at it as however your car is driving in the All-Star Race is relatively true to how your car is going to drive in the 600. It’s a really good test because it’s really the only time we have to run at night in race conditions.
“At the same time, the style of racing is very different. Guys that run well in the All-Star Race will run well in the Coke 600, but they’re not going to beat and bang like they might in the All-Star Race.”