Dale Earnhardt Sr. congratulates his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. after winning the 2002 All-Star Race. (NASCAR Photo)

All-Star Race: 12 Memorable Moments

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — As NASCAR celebrates the milestone 40th running of its popular All-Star Race, one of the single biggest factors in the 39 previous editions of the prestigious event that showcases the best of the best in the NASCAR Cup Series with more than $1 million up for grabs has been surprises. 

There has been a plethora of surprise winners, surprise finishes, surprising crashes and surprising moves on the track that left fans breathless. 

As the 40th NASCAR All-Star Race takes center stage at legendary North Wilkesboro Speedway this weekend, fans can almost certainly expect more of the same. Before crowning the 40th winner on Sunday night, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable finishes in All-Star Race history.

12. 2019, “Advance and Conquer”

Kyle Larson earned the first of his three All-Star Race victories while driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. The California native swept both races that night, the All-Star Open and the All-Star Race, becoming only the first Cup Series driver to win the All-Star Race after also claiming the All-Star Open.

He’s since added two more All-Star Race victories, at Texas Motor Speedway in 2021 and North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2023.

11. 2009, “Smoke Got Him!”

Tony Stewart scored an emotional first win as a team owner/driver in the Cup Series by taking the checkered flag in the thrilling 2009 All-Star Race. In a final 10-lap shootout, Stewart passed rivals Kyle Busch in third and second-place Matt Kenseth in dramatic fashion as TV analyst Larry McReynolds famously shouted “Smoke got him!” and he took the checkered flag and pocketed the $1 million payday.

It was the former Cup and IndyCar champion’s first win since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. He joined 1994 winner Geoff Bodine as the All-Star Race’s only driver-owner winners. 

10. 2008, “Crashing the Party”

Kasey Kahne thought his night was over after finishing a disappointing 15th at the controls of his Ray Evernham No. 9 Dodge in the All-Star Open in 2008 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. However, his legion of fans came to the rescue and awarded him a starting spot in the All-Star Race as the fan vote winner.

He started last in the All-Star Race, but after making adjustments to the car and coming up aces on a pit road gamble, sent him straight to victory lane as the surprise winner. In the strategic pit stop move, Kahne’s team elected to not change tires and it paid off. Runner-up Greg Biffle, who led the most laps and took two tires in the same stop, wasn’t able to get by the big red machine as the checkered flag waved.

9. 2005, “Throwback Victory”

Mark Martin became the oldest All-Star winner in history at age 46 when he turned back the clock a bit to win a fan-favorite 2005 All-Star Race at Charlotte. Driving a throwback color scheme that honored the early 1990s on his No. 6 Ford gave Martin the mojo he needed to run up front and ultimately take the victory.

Martin won the first segment, and then worked his way back to the front in the second segment after an inverted start. In the final segment he took advantage of a nine-car melee to move into contention. In the final 19 laps, Martin was able to bump past Elliott Sadler to take the lead. Martin pulled away once he got out front and Sadler finished second.  

8. 2002, “Another Rookie Winner”

Ryan Newman managed to have one of the best All-Star nights in history in 2002 as he won the All-Star Open and then started last in the 27-car All-Star field, but managed to hang on and win the $1 million first place prize.

Ironically, to take the win he had to hold off the defending winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. With the win Newman joined Earnhardt Jr. as the only rookies to have ever won the All-Star Race.

7. 2000, “We came here to take all the money”

Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Steve Park had just won the All-Star Open and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was determined to do his part to make the evening a race-team affair to remember at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2000. The third-generation star kept the momentum going when he raced to the win in the All-Star Race to capture the $1 million payday.

A late pit stop gave the driver of the red No. 8 Chevy all the momentum he needed to make a late-race pass on Dale Jarrett and capture the prestigious victory. He became the first rookie to win the All-Star Race and famously said in victory lane as he celebrated with his team owner and father, “We didn’t come here to run third, we came here to take all the money.” 

6. 1997, “T-Rex Roars”

Jeff Gordon drove his famed Jurassic Park movie-themed “T-Rex” No. 24 Chevy to a dominating victory in the 1997 NASCAR All-Star Race, winning all three stages. This victory was also controversial, as the “experimental” car was rumored to be illegal due to a questionable suspension setup that basically optimized the car for short-run speed.

The car was reportedly signed off on by NASCAR officials prior to the All-Star Race and strutted its stuff throughout the night, putting on quite a show for the fans. Gordon took the lead with nine laps to go and cruised on to the victory. Later the next week NASCAR officials modified its rulebook and made sure that T-Rex was all but extinct.

5. 1996, “Last to First”

Michael Waltrip hadn’t exactly followed in his big brother Darrell’s tire tracks in the Cup Series. Through 11 seasons of racing, which was more than 300 starts, he had yet to win a major event or any points-paying race, much less cash a big payday.

That all changed at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1996. Waltrip found a way to finish fifth, the last transfer spot, in the All-Star Open qualifying race and advanced into the big-money All-Star Race. Driving the famed No. 21 for the Wood Brothers out of Virginia, Waltrip found his stride under the bright lights of the All-Star Race. The tall, lanky driver found his way into contention and took advantage of contact late in the race between rivals Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Terry Labonte.

Waltrip sped through the open gap to claim the lead with nine laps to go. From there he mashed the gas and left the pack behind and made history as the first driver to win the All-Star Race after transferring from the Open. He famously said to his critics who called it an exhibition win after the race, “I smell like champagne. I’ve got confetti on me and I just won one of the biggest races of the year with the Wood Brothers. I swear it feels a whole lot like a win to me.”  

4. 1992, “One Hot Night”

For the first time in All-Star Race history the race was held under bright stadium lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Davey Allison and Kyle Petty dueled for most of the night, proving they both had the top-contending cars, but the always present “Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt was lurking, and had worked his way into the lead with six laps to go.

Petty reeled in Earnhardt and eventually Petty and Earnhardt tangled in turn three while battling for the lead on the final lap, and while the 3-car slid away from the action, Petty and Allison powered side-by-side toward the checkered flag. Sparks were flying as the two made contact at the finish and the crashing race cars sent Allison in one direction and Petty in another.

Allison was declared the winner, but he didn’t make it to Victory Lane, unfortunately, as he was rushed to a local hospital where he was treated for a separated collarbone and other minor injuries. That race alone set the tone for the All-Star Race becoming must-watch NASCAR and the hottest ticket in town.

3. 1989, “The Tide Slide”

Then young-gun Rusty Wallace stalked the decorated NASCAR champ Darrell Waltrip for nearly nine laps in the 1989 All-Star Race at Charlotte before making his winning move. The two drivers had the best cars of the night, as each had claimed an earlier segment win. In the final segment, Waltrip appeared to be on his way to victory in the late stages.

With 10 laps to go, however, Wallace’s No. 27 Pontiac continued to creep closer to Waltrip’s bumper. With two laps remaining, Wallace got to Waltrip’s rear bumper in turns 3-4 as the white flag waved in the distance. The two cars eventually touched and Waltrip’s famed No. 17 orange Tide Chevy took a slide up the track. While Wallace drove to victory lane, the two race teams erupted in a huge fight on pit road. A dejected Waltrip famously said, “I hope he chokes on that $200,000.”

2. 1987, “The Pass in the Grass”

One of the most-discussed All-Star Races in history, the 1987 victory by Dale Earnhardt Sr., still to this day receives more than its share of water-cooler chatter among race fans. At the time the race was famously tagged “The Pass in the Grass”, but as we all know there was no pass. It was a “Save in the Grass”. And a magic one at that.

Earnhardt somehow managed to recover after Bill Elliott tagged his rear bumper and sent his blue and yellow No. 3 Chevy off the track onto the grass patch in the tri-oval of Charlotte Motor Speedway. A determined Earnhardt never lost stride or power and just manhandled the machine back on the track and never lost his position. It was a breath-taking moment and a spectacular save all in one.

Earnhardt had been battling with his rival Elliott for most of the race and neither driver was giving an inch. Both were animated in post-race interviews. Said an angry Elliott: “Dale cut down on me and spun himself. Clearly, I was under him. If I’d meant to spin him, I would have spun him. I had the quickest car… he meant to take me out.”

Earnhardt had a different view of the event.

“(Elliott) came up there and tried to spin me out twice,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t take it.”  

1. 1985, “Explosive Victory”

Darrell Waltrip won the inaugural NASCAR All-Star Race in thrilling fashion at Charlotte Motor Speedway and as soon as the checkered flag waved, controversy ensued. In fact, that one All-Star Race may be the most controversial of them all.

Harry Gant led the most laps in the star-studded field of 12 drivers that featured the best of the best from the time period. Gant looked like he was on his way to an easy win but Waltrip had other plans. With two laps to go, Waltrip caught and passed Gant and took the victory. A few moments after the checkered flag waved, Waltrip’s No. 11 Junior-Johnson tuned Chevy erupted in white smoke.

The win stood, and the controversy still lingers. Even today there are those who feel like that engine was illegal, but because it exploded just after the race was over there was nothing for NASCAR’s officials to inspect.