Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday May 17, 2013
This weekend, NASCAR will stage its All-Star event—four 20-lap races and one final dash for all the marbles. It’s a Saturday night shootout for the sport’s elite; you have to win to get in, and that sets up quite a show. Many teams bring specially-built cars, and there is no saving the equipment for another race, so drivers have free rein to race as hard as they dare for every lap. Fans should see quite a show this weekend.
The question is, is it a little too much of a show?
There were a few changes to the format this year. Most of them make sense. With the elimination of a separate pit crew competition, a mandatory four-tire stop before the last segment will still give pit crews the chance to shine. That’s important; after all, they’re a big part of why their driver is in the race to start with; they deserve the chance to be a central part of the outcome.
In fact, it used to be that if a driver won a race and changed teams, both the driver with his new team, and his old team with a new driver were eligible. It’s a shame this was changed—the all-star race shouldn’t be just about the drivers. Not one of them won a race on their own, and slighting the teams who got them there doesn’t seem right. Screwing over the guys who put in the lion’s share of the hours needed to get the car to the winner’s circle shows a real disconnect on NASCAR’s part. While it can be debated whether Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is an All-Star caliber driver, there is no argument that the No. 17 team is. Matt Kenseth won the 2012 Daytona 500 with their help. He’s in the race. They should be too.
Also, after last year’s race saw the drivers who won early segments riding around at the back to avoid trouble because their position in the final segment was secure, this year, the order in which they’ll come onto pit road for that critical stop will be determined by their average finish in the four segments. In order to guarantee a top spot coming to the pits, drivers will have to try to win every segment. That means more hard racing with more chance for an on-track melee.
And then there’s the Danica Rule. NASCAR made a subtle change to the rules at the eleventh hour, and it’s earned the moniker “the Danica Rule” in the garage because it improves the rookie driver’s chances of getting into the main event quite noticeably. (Patrick has finished on the lead lap just twice in 2013. For those keeping score at home, that’s just one more lead lap finish than the bottom-of-the-barrel No. 33) Formerly, the driver to win the fan vote had to finish the second segment of the Sprint Showdown on the lead lap. Not anymore; the car just has to be in “raceable condition” as determined by NASCAR. This leads to a couple of problems.
One, if a driver can’t finish on the lead lap of the consolation race, does he or she really deserve to be called an All-Star? Don’t get me wrong, the last-chance qualifying race is a good thing and so is the fan vote (mostly). But the new rule is A). encouraging the leaders in the fan vote to stroke around at the back (something they worked hard to eliminate from the main event) if they don’t have a winning car. And B). it sets up a scenario where a badly damaged car could be allowed to be cobbled together with duct tape and raced, though it will be far off the pace, in the All-Star race over a car that could at least be somewhat competitive. After all, does “raceable” mean “competitive”, or simply, “It’s a great marketing coup if Danica Patrick makes the race, even if she only runs a few laps. It means she’s an All_Star!” If it’s the latter, shame on NASCAR.
There’s a big difference between making this rule and having a backmarker car make the field through the fan vote last year. For one, that No. 47 car, backmarker or not, raced hard and got a lead lap finish. Second, its driver is no backmarker driver; Bobby Labonte is a Sprint Cup champion. And that’s another problem with this race. Past champions are eligible—if they won the title within the last ten years. That excludes Labonte along with his brother Terry. Active, full time drivers who are past champions should be in the race. The only one not allowed to dance is Labonte. Think about it for a second: There are just seven series champions running all the races. That’s a pretty elite group—and Labonte is part of it.
When Labonte got into the race via the fan vote last year, it was a huge boost for his JTG-Daugherty Racing team. And just think—they almost didn’t come to the track at all. This year, a few of the small teams are opting to skip the race, because unlike the bigger, wealthier teams, they can’t afford to lose a car for a non-points event they know they aren’t going to win. Not even the chance to test for next week’s Coca-Cola 600 is worth it for struggling organizations like Wood Brothers Racing. Between the guaranteed entrants for the main event (19 of them) and the Sprint Showdown entry list (23 teams), there aren’t enough to fill the field for a regular points race. Why? Because it’s too expensive, too big a risk. Maybe it’s time for NASCAR to make some real, meaningful cost-cutting measures to help out the smaller teams. Wouldn’t a full field of competitive cars be better for everyone?
Sure, the All-Star race has a history of gimmicks. We joked about them ourselves in this week’s Top Ten and there have been a few that worked. They used to invert the field before the last segment, to the general delight of the fans, for one. But is NASCAR losing sight of what the fans really want to see? Or do the fans really want to see something other than good, hard, no-holds-barred full contact racing on a Saturday night? Is seeing one driver in the field really so important as to stack the deck so heavily in (his or) her favor? I’m all for the fan vote; heck, the fans vote the entire starting lineup for Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Classic, but the lead lap finish requirement was a sound one, because it ensured at least some level of performance for the driver to be called an All-Star.
The All-Star Race format this year looks like it should provide an exciting race for fans. Were that format coupled with eligibility guidelines that make more sense, like including past champions who are racing full-time in Sprint Cup, letting the team a driver won with race, even if he’s no longer there (he is an All-Star because of them, after all!), requiring a certain level of performance to get the fan vote, and allowing only the winner of the Sprint Showdown into the main event, it would be even better.
The All-Star race is one for the fans, that’s true. But even more than that, it’s for the drivers and teams who have earned the right to race in it. While there will always be fans disappointed because their driver isn’t in the main event on Saturday, the eligibility requirements leave something to be desired. A winning team (the No. 17) is left in the cold despite the fact they helped win the race that technically qualified their driver for the field (Matt Kenseth has won since, but the 2012 Daytona 500 is the qualifying race of record). Is Danica Patrick really more of an All-Star than Bobby Labonte? In a race that’s for the drivers and teams who have excelled in NASCAR competition, there are some names missing…and an attempt to get one name in that leaves a sour taste. This race used to be for the sake of the drivers, teams, and fans…has that been sacrificed for the sake of the show?
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