It’s time to take a break from points racing and go for the gold–or at least the oversized novelty check. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is at the sport’s home track of Charlotte Motor Speedway for 10 days of action, beginning with this weekend’s All-Star Race, a no-holds-barred battle that, true to tradition, went through another format change prior to this year’s running. We’ll depart from our usual structure for race previews and talk through some of the major things to keep in mind.

How it works

2013 will mark the 28th running of the All-Star race, and I don’t think the event has used the same format two years in a row in like, ever.[ref]This is not a fact and I am too lazy to look it up. YOLO.[/ref] So, we won’t worry about the history and we’ll just tell you how it works in 2013.

Who’s eligible

The field for the All-Star race is set based on several criteria:

  • Drivers who won a points race in the Sprint Cup series in 2012 or thus far in 2013
  • Drivers who have won the All-Star race within the past 10 years
  • Drivers who have won the Sprint Cup series championship within the past 10 years
  • The top two finishers in the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap race that will be run just prior to the All-Star race
  • Danica Patrick. Technically, the Sprint Fan Vote winner, but it will be Danica. More on this in a second.

These rules give us a locked-in field of 19 drivers thus far: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, David Ragan, and Tony Stewart.

Event format

The Sprint Showdown will be two segments of 20 laps, with the winner and runner-up transferring into the big show, as well as one other driver from the field who has a car in “race-able” condition following the Showdown. Once again, this will be Danica. But we’ll get to that in a second.

The All-Star race main event will be a total of 90 laps: four segments of 20 laps and a final sprint of 10 laps. There will be five caution laps run in between each segment and drivers must make a mandatory four-tire pit stop in between the fourth and final segments. Those are the basics. Now, let’s look at some specifics.

No more sandbagging

In 2012, NASCAR came up with what it thought was a great role to promote competition. The winners of each of the first four segments would be lined up in positions one through four for the start of the final segment. This was a cool idea, and made it even more crucial to win a segment and give yourself a car that could start up front for the final 10 laps. Unfortunately, they didn’t think it all the way through. Jimmie Johnson cruised to victory in the first segment, and then, since he was guaranteed the number one spot to begin the final segment, rode around at the back for the next three segments, staying at least 10 seconds behind the rest of the field. It was a bitch move, yes, but smart considering the rules.

This year, that’s no longer the case. The final segment starting order will be determined by a driver’s average finish from the first four segments. Now, it’s no longer enough to win a single segment, you have to be up front the entire time if you want a shot at starting near the front and winning the race.

Qualifying changes: Let’s go old school

The All-Star race has always been intriguing because it includes the pit crews, the often overlooked heroes of NASCAR. A driver’s qualifying time is taken as the total of three laps around the track, including a four-tire pit stop. This year, that’s still the same, with one minor change: no pit road speed limit. Usually, the speed limit is dismissed on exiting the pits during qualifying, but this year, it’s been thrown out all together. The only requirement is that the pit crews cannot go over the wall and service the car until it has come to a complete stop. Not only is this a throwback to the early days of the sport, when there was no speed limit,[ref]Crew members also didn’t wear any protective gear, but we’ve gotten a little smarter than that.[/ref] it also tests a driver’s skill even more, because they’re allowed to bring the car at full speed down the pit lane, but they still have to stop within their pit box, lest they get pushed back and lose time. It’s a format change that I feel like will suit the likes of Kyle Busch, but I have no doubts somebody will probably slide their ride into the wall trying to gain time.

The Danica Rule

OK, it’s finally time to discuss it. As mentioned above, the first- and second-place finishers in the Showdown will move on to the All-Star race, as well as one more driver, a Showdown participant who finishes the race with a car in “race-able” condition as determined by Sprint Cup series director John Darby. That’s all well and good, but what really brought about controversy early in the week was a last-minute change NASCAR made to this rule. Because of what it dubbed “simple oversight,” officials let us know that the winner of fan vote does not have to finish on the lead lap to be eligible. Last year, that wasn’t the case. In 2012, if you won the fan vote but got lapped during the Showdown, you were out of luck and couldn’t move on. We were told that 2012 was the only year this has been the rule, and that for the other iterations of the All-Star race, it wasn’t required to finish on the lead lap to win the fan vote. That may be true, but the fact that we are now being told this explicitly is undoubtedly to let us know that when they announce Danica as the fan vote winner, we can’t complain. At least not too much.

She’ll win the fan vote. It’s not even up for debate. NASCAR has been hilariously listing the top five vote getters in alphabetical order as a tease to who will win the final vote, but there’s no doubts it will be Danica. She’ll make it into the All-Star race, and she’ll do terribly. She might cause a wreck, she might get caught up in one, but she’ll be there. In theory, whatever, it doesn’t matter. But it’s kind of sad. It happens in every sport, but NASCAR is not immune to its “all-stars” not always being the best drivers, but simply the most popular. Enjoy your fan vote win, Danica, and more importantly, enjoy your (probable) last place finish.

The winnings

The winner of the All-Star race will earn $1 million, but in reality, that’s chump change to most of these guys. The real prize is pride, of saying what nobody else usually can: “I beat Danica!” Oh wait, that’s not right.

Additionally, if a driver wins all five segments and sweeps the event, they’ll get an extra million, bringing the total possible prize money to a cool $2 million. That’ll fatten your wallet.

So who’s gonna win this thing?

Last year, after winning the first segment and then sandbagging for the next three, Johnson ran off with the victory. He’s certainly running well enough in 2013 to do it again, but I don’t think he will. Matt Kenseth has the hot hand in the Sprint Cup series right now, and I think he’ll continue that dominance in the All-Star race. He’s always good at the 1.5-mile tracks anyway, and with the momentum the #20 team is carrying, he’s hard to bet against.

Enjoy the race, folks, and don’t forget, it’s on the SPEED channel Saturday night. Unfortunately, you still get to listen to Darrell Waltrip in the commentary booth.