Don’t blame the format.
There was nothing wrong with the structure of Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race — nothing, that is, that a few minor tweaks can’t fix.
Yes, the final 10-lap segment was anti-climactic. Having gained control of the race and the final restart by winning the first of four 20-lap segments, Jimmie Johnson gradually pulled away from Brad Keselowski during the final dash for the $1 million first prize.
The race didn’t provide what NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France likes to call “a Game 7 moment.” On the other hand, not every World Series has a Game 7, and sometimes, as with last year’s St. Louis Cardinals victory over the Texas Rangers, it’s a Game 6 moment that captivates the imagination.
The stat sheet from Saturday’s race belies what an enthusiastic crowd saw on the racetrack. True, there were only seven lead changes among seven drivers, even with segment winners lagging in the back after locking up their positions among the first four cars to enter pit road before the final run.
The box score shows Brad Keselowski winning the third segment wire-to-wire. The box score also shows yet another Sprint Cup Race without a caution for a racing accident. Four of the six yellow-flag periods were planned, as breaks between segments. The other two occurred when the experimental engines of Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle blew up and oiled the track.
So, in one sense, the race didn’t live up to the billing its gets every year, as a slugfest rife with destruction and anger.
But even if wrecking — other than a few scrapes with the wall — took a vacation, there was plenty of racing action to admire.
After cutting a tire before the preliminary Sprint Showdown even started, AJ Allmendinger made a heroic run from the back of the field to the second transfer position into the All-Star Race.
My jaw dropped on the very first lap of the main event, as I watched Marcos Ambrose streak around the outside of Turns 1 and 2, as he mowed down nine cars on the opening circuit.
I saw Jimmie Johnson start sixth in the first 20-lap segment and move to the front within 15 laps, running down pole-sitter Kyle Busch to win the first leg.
Even though Keselowski led every lap of segment No. 3, I saw some of the most compelling racing of the evening in the closing laps, as Kasey Kahne drove like a wild man in pursuit of the No. 2 Dodge. With one lap left in the run, Keselowski took Kahne’s high line through Turns 3 and 4 and preserved his advantage.
On the next circuit, Keselowski was back on the bottom, almost as if he were giving Kahne a sporting chance. Kahne got a huge run off Turn 4 from the outside lane, and in a drag race to the finish, Keselowski won the segment by .006 seconds.
I heard one of the loudest roars I’ve heard in four years after Dale Earnhardt Jr., who transferred into the All-Star Race by winning the Showdown, completed a charge from the back of the field to the front and battled for the lead. Earnhardt won the final segment in a car that had had enormous speed — and a car, incidentally, that crew chief Steve Letarte may well bring back to Charlotte for next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
So there was a lot to like about the All-Star Race, even absent a demolition derby in the last 10 laps. The evening had drama, and it had energy, even if it did have some quirks that need correcting.
After Johnson won the first segment — guaranteeing he would be first to pit road before the final run — he took the next three off, lagging behind the field and tuning his car. Matt Kenseth and Keselowski used a similar approach after winning segments 2 and 3, respectively.
Another advantage accrued to those three drivers. Knowing they would enter pit road for their mandatory final stops in the first, second and third positions, Johnson, Keselowski and Kenseth had the luxury of pitting for tires late in segment No. 4, under caution for Biffle’s blown engine, without sacrificing track position for the final run.
You could make a strong case, as Johnson did after the race, that after the first segment, the deck was stacked heavily in favor of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
There’s an easy way to fix that. Instead of allowing the winner of the first segment to enter pit road first — and almost assuredly leave pit road first after a stop-and-go — make the first segment winner come in fourth, the second segment winner come in third, and so forth.
Since the leader of the race with 10 to go is the driver most likely to win it, that would give segment winners an incentive to continue racing — not to hang back, as they did Saturday night.
If you prefer a more radical solution, then park a driver as soon as he wins a segment and keep the car parked until the final pit stop. That would prevent the team from tuning the car while other drivers are actually racing, and it would eliminate a potential tire advantage for the segment winners.
Sponsors might not like that approach, but interviewing drivers in their logoed uniforms while their cars are sidelined could compensate for the lack of track time.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author
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