If NASCAR wants to provide fans with the best possible racing product, it might be time to consider changing the venue for the Sprint All-Star Race.
With the current format of four 20-lap segments and a 10-lap shootout, a shorter track such as Bristol Motor Speedway or Richmond International Raceway might allow more drivers to factor into the finish.
Although the All-Star race didn’t provide the scintillating finish fans had hoped for, there were positives to take from the event. The exercise did offer Sprint Cup teams two days to test the latest and greatest advancements on the Generation-6 cars. Despite the laps already logged with the new model already at the intermediate tracks of Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas, the 90 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway allowed teams to experiment under competitive conditions without points on the line.
“At the end of the day, there’s no points,” said Kurt Busch, who finished fifth on Saturday night. “You’re only racing for the million bucks, so second on back doesn’t matter. But yes, all we did tonight transfers to the 600 and we have to pace ourselves for 400 laps — not 90.”
The conundrum with the All-Star event, however, is when teams come to the conclusion that they’re not in the game for the million-dollar prize, the strategy quickly changes from elbows up — as Busch showed throughout the full five segments — to bringing the car back in one piece.
That was the case for the No. 15 team and Clint Bowyer. Certainly, Bowyer had the machine. His move that took Kyle and Kurt Busch three-wide on the Lap 21 restart was proof of that. But after the crew gambled and remained on the track for the third segment then entered pit road sixth and exited 11th following the final pit stop, it clearly made more sense to ride and keep the car intact rather than race to the finish.
“It was a brand-new car and we wanted to bring it back for the 600,” Bowyer's crew chief Brian Pattie said. “It was safer for me to race the same car.”
While spending two weeks in the Charlotte area provides a pleasant respite for the teams, it might be time to consider a new home for the next All-Star event. No, not every race will produce a side-by-side finish, but with Saturday’s winner Jimmie Johnson extending his lead over second-place Joey Logano by 1.722 seconds at the finish, one has to wonder what type of action we could see in an ultimate dash for the cash in a five-mile fight to the finish rather than 15 of a 1.5-mile track.
And what happened to all the payback banter discussed prior to the All-Star race — with no points on the line that the event provided the perfect opportunity? It didn’t happen and likely won’t on a mile-and-a-half track.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a laugh on Thursday, “What’s wrong with the other races? Those are good races too. I think if you really want to get after somebody you don’t have opportunities coming up too often. You take them whenever you can get them.”
But other than a road course, there’s no better setting for retribution than a short track — and with no points on the line, think of the possibilities.
Here are five other topics to ponder looking ahead to the Coca-Cola 600:
1. Teamwork Wins
No one was surprised by Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team persevering in the final segment of the All-Star race despite last-minute changes to the pit crew prior to the race. Certainly, Johnson's squad made the difference on the final pit stop.
While Johnson’s teammate Kasey Kahne exited pit road ahead of him, Kahne fought a tight condition with his car that allowed Johnson to capitalize and make the winning move.
Perhaps what’s more impressive regarding Johnson’s record-breaking fourth All-Star victory was the team’s ability to jell so quickly despite adding a new front tire changer and new tire changer and carrier combination on the rear. For crew chief Chad Knaus, it’s been a four-year work in progress. But give the guy credit for not being afraid to pull the trigger.
2. Clean air is king
It was clear on Saturday that the cars out front had an extreme advantage over the field. In the Showdown, winner Jamie McMurray took the point and led every lap. Jimmie Johnson knew that to win the All-Star race he would have to start from the front row for the finish.
For drivers mired in traffic, the car handling with a “tight” condition seemed to be the main complaint of the night. Of course, teams are still in the learning phase with the Generation-6 car. Midway through the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. radioed to crew chief Steve Letarte, “I’ve never really been pulled around by a car on my quarterpanel until just then by (Greg Biffle's car) in (Turn) 2.” So it will be curious to watch what aero changes teams target and whether the side-draft comes into play on Sunday.
3. Seven-year itch?
It’s hard to believe that Charlotte Motor Speedway was last repaved in 2006, because the track remains so smooth. Kyle Busch, who finished third on Saturday, believes the lack of competition in the All-Star race was due to “short runs” on a hard tire. “When you’re only running 20 laps on tires, you’re really not going to see much separation,” Busch said. “You’re not going to see much passing because there isn’t much tire fall-off yet. I’d say, you really start seeing that from probably Lap 25 to Lap 60 — which is a full-fuel run.” With 400 laps on Sunday, hopefully tire strategy will come into play, but it’s likely that teams will still gamble with two-tire and no-tire pit stops.
4. Keep an eye on ...
Kurt Busch on Sunday. There’s no doubt that “The Outlaw” had one of the fastest cars in the All-Star race. However, as solid as Johnson's No. 48 team was on the final pit stop to gain its driver two positions, Busch lost four. Still, considering that Busch outraced Kevin Harvick with engines and chassis from the same stable, it’s clear how far Furniture Row Racing has come in just a short time.
5. Up in Smoke
Did anyone else wonder if Tony Stewart was running around the back of the pack on Saturday to chaperone his former USAC driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his current driver Danica Patrick? While the three-time Cup champion quipped about the couple's attempts to wreck each other, it’s still hard to believe he was far enough back in the pack to watch them. Despite starting 13th, Stewart dropped back early citing “no stability throughout the corner” and used the event for a test session. Still, one has to wonder how much longer the experiment with crew chief Steve Addington will continue before Greg Zipadelli gets the call.