Matt Stallknecht · Friday May 17, 2013
It’s All-Star Weekend in NASCAR Nation, and what is traditionally one of the more dramatic and arresting events of the season lies just around the corner. We’ve seen a little bit of everything this season as we head into the All-Star Break, there’s been some incredible racing, upsets, tempers flaring, and much more. Once again, the All-Star Race has a new format, seemingly for no purpose other than the whims of NASCAR’s higher ups. The effect that that new format will have on the excitement of the event will no doubt be the leading story heading into the weekend, and you can be sure that every Tom, Dick, and Harry in Internet-Land will have their own unique opinion on the format changes. I am one of those Tom, Dick, and Harrys, so without further ado, I give you my take on what to expect for this upcoming weekend’s All-Star festivities.
1. Will this year’s round of format changes spice up the All-Star Race?
Yes, the racing is contrived. Yes, the race is 100% geared toward manufactured excitement. And yes, you can be sure that more than a few folks will be calling the legitimacy of the race’s finish into question. But putting all of that aside, the All-Star Race generally puts on a good show for the fans nonetheless, and NASCAR seems hell-bent on tweaking the event’s rules to further ante up the excitement. Some years it works (the 2002-2003 “Survival of the Fastest” format was particularly fun, and also quite polarizing), some years it doesn’t (last year’s “segment winners get a guaranteed top 4 starting spot in final segment” resonated well with almost no one), but you can always count on something being new every time the All-Star race descends upon us.
So what’s new for the race in 2013? The race will once again feature five segments of 20 laps apiece, and the starting order for the final segment will be determined by each driver’s average finish compiled from the first four segments. The prevailing thought is that this will make it so that a driver has to perform well in each segment to get a good starting spot for the 5th “money segment”. Unlike most years, where drivers sandbag for the first two or three segments and then go all out in the final segment, drivers will have to treat every segment like it is the last one. For the first time in All-Star Race history, every lap in the event will actually mean something.
This bodes quite well for the possibility of overall excitement throughout the whole race. It likely won’t make the typically hairy final segment any more exciting, but it should give a needed energy boost to the typically dry opening segments of the event. Combine all of that with the Gen-6 cars that have proven to be noticeably racier on intermediate tracks, and you may just have the recipe for an instant classic.
2. Who figures to advance from the Sprint Showdown?
The Sprint Showdown, which is the qualifying race for those drivers not locked into the All-Star, is arguably one of the more underrated events of the Sprint Cup season. Broken into two segments of only 20 laps each, the Showdown is the only true “sprint race” that NASCAR has to offer. The top two finishers (along with a third driver who wins the fan vote), will advance to the All-Star race. The Showdown, being a sprint race, tends to reward drivers who are either fast qualifiers or incredibly aggressive drivers willing to do whatever it takes to blow through the field into a transfer spot as quickly as possible. Looking at the entry list, a few names jump out as possibilities for filling those criteria.
The most obvious driver who figures to advance into the All-Star race is Martin Truex Jr. His MWR #56 machine has had incredible speed on the mile and a half track this year, and Martin is a great qualifier to boot. While he’s anything but aggressive, he will likely qualify up front and have a quick enough car to stay there for the duration of the event. Pencil him in as the winner of the race for now. As for the fan vote, it pretty much goes without saying that Danica Patrick has that locked up. And given a new rule (designed for her perhaps?) for the race, she doesn’t even need to finish on the lead lap of the race to advance to the All-Star!
With two predictions set, that leaves one more driver to fill in the final transfer spot to the All-Star race. Given that the field is relatively weak this year, only a few drivers will be truly competitive enough to duke it out for the final position. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray, Juan Montoya, Aric Almirola, and perhaps Paul Menard are the only drivers outside of Truex who ought to have enough speed to race their way into the event. Of that group, Stenhouse Jr. likely has the best chance of advancing. His ultra-aggressive style is tailor made for an event like the Sprint Showdown, and he tends to be at his best on smooth intermediate tracks like Charlotte.
Anything can and usually will happen in races like this, but given how weak this year’s field is, it’s pretty much a given that the few “heavy hitters” in the race will be the one’s advancing to the All-Star race.
3. Can Kyle Busch finally win the All-Star race?
The race would appear to be perfectly suited for him. Kyle Busch, being the ultra-aggressive, no-holds barred driver that he is, should have won the All-Star race by now. Oh sure, he’s had cars capable of winning the race, but every year something (usually himself) trips him up. 2010 certainly comes to mind, that being the race where his over-aggression at the end of the race led to him getting wrecked. Busch’s experiences in the All-Star race over the years have been a microcosm of his career: always fast, but can’t seal the deal. Could this be the year he actually gets it done?
Well, not if last week is any indication of what is to come for Busch. Despite dominating the whole race at Darlington, Busch once again choked away the race when it came down to the finish, further showcasing his seeming inability to perform under pressure. He does it in the Chase once a year, he’s done it in other big races that he should have won, and he will likely do it again. There’s been much talk this year about the “New Kyle Busch”, and I have a feeling we will get a clear picture of how much Kyle Busch has developed personally after this weekend’s race.
We know his JGR equipment will be fast, and we know he will likely be there at the end of the race. But will he let the demons of past All-Star races, and even last week’s race, come back to bite him? Whatever the answer to that question ends up being will be quite telling in terms of just how far Kyle Busch has come as a driver, as one more instance of him choking away/ruining a race that has always eluded him could cast a negative spell on what has been an otherwise sterling year for him.
4. Will Kasey Kahne finally stick up for himself?
Kasey Kahne is a nice guy. Really, he is. Kahne is generally the last guy you will see either retaliating at someone, getting angry at fellow drivers, or yelling at his crew. Maybe it’s just his easygoing West Coast mentality. Kahne is an extremely clean racer who prefers to just do his own thing on the race track. So clean and easygoing is Kahne, that he will often underreact to being pushed around by other drivers…drivers such as Kyle Busch. Kahne has been wrecked 3 times by Busch this year, with the most obvious incident occurring last Saturday night in which Busch blew turn 1 and forced Kahne to spin out. Whether or not Busch meant to wreck Kahne is irrelevant, because Busch knows Kahne is the kind of guy who he can push around.
How does one come to such a conclusion? One only needs to look at Kahne’s post-race interview at Darlington to figure this one out. While most drivers would be seething with anger and vowing to rip Busch’s head off for having been wrecked by him three times in one season, Kahne’s reaction was dry and emotionless. He more or less said that he was “disappointed” in Busch and that he hoped it wouldn’t happen again. That’s not the kind of attitude a driver who has been wrecked three times by another driver should have.
Kahne obviously has the speed to win a championship this year, but unless he asserts himself a bit more on track, he is going to continue to get stepped on. The All-Star race is known for fireworks and lots of contact. If Busch and Kahne are near each other again and Busch decides to play the aggressive card, it would be in Kahne’s best interest to lay the law down and push back. Continuing to let other drivers use Kahne up is only doing him a disservice at this point, and this week would be a fantastic time for Kahne to start upping his level of aggression on track. Not doing so will likely only lead to more “disappointment” for driver #5.
Connect with Matt!
Contact Matt Stallknecht
©2000 - 2008 Matt Stallknecht and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!