When it comes to sports, the worst words a stakeholder can hear are “strike,” “lockout,” or “injury.” It’s those types of tragic moments that kill your fan following in an instant, turning popular into polarizing and plummeting ratings. But beneath the Captain Obvious level, there’s another tier of sinister adjectives in which a once-booming form of entertainment can lead itself down the mountain of death. All too often, NASCAR is afflicted with one, a word disease from which the need for a cure is reaching critical condition.
In a nutshell, that word describes NASCAR’s All-Star Race, one of too many the past few years whose ending gets determined far too early. In the last nine of these events, there’s been a pass for the lead within the final five laps only once – back in 2009. Instead of sparks, fans are conditioned for snoozers, the first pass on a double-file restart almost always becoming the last within the final ten-lap segment. Clean air, not close finishes and controversy dominate the equation at a Charlotte racetrack that’s never been the same since getting the competition “levigated” out of it in the mid-2000s.
“You got to be on the front row,” remarked Kyle Busch, Saturday’s third-place finisher, “If you’re going to win this thing in 10 laps.”
It’s a damning report on both the surface of the 1.5-mile oval, Goodyear tires and the Gen-6 chassis, who’s had its moments in 2013 but clearly struggled on Saturday night. When a third-place driver can’t pass two cars in front of him, in ten laps there’s clearly something wrong with the equation. Yet the problems evident in the empty seats at Charlotte, combined with the runaway victory by Jimmie Johnson run far deeper. Johnson’s victory, the fourth in the All-Star Race was the opposite of David Ragan’s Talladega surprise. He was on top, 5/1 on the Vegas Odds board, leads the points by nearly a full race’s worth over the rest of the field and has six career wins at Charlotte, the most of any active driver. To say his “charge” to the front, punctuated by an 11.8-second final pit stop was surprising was like saying you just found out the sun rises in the east.
Danica Patrick’s entrance into the race, through the Sprint Fan Vote also seemed somewhat preordained. A rule change during the week, which struck down the mandatory lead-lap finish in the preliminary Sprint Showdown seemed tailor-made to make sure Ms. GoDaddy had the “Fans” backing her in no matter what. She finished 20th in the main event, the last car still running and barely earned the TV time the final vote totals supposedly said they were looking for.
Patrick ran mostly single-file, sticking in line with the rest of her compatriots in an event where it was clearly difficult to run side-by-side or with traffic. “Aero push” was the order of the day, toning down aggression and leaving drivers happy to take what they could get, even on a night where “average finish” played into the equation for the final ten-lap segment. That, in itself was a mathematical nightmare, perhaps the only unpredictable part for all the wrong reasons. It was so tough to keep track of, for even those good at math SPEED made a graphical error and placed Jimmie Johnson in the wrong position of their rundown prior to the final, yellow-flag pit stop.
It’s an intermediate story we’ve seen play out before; having it happen in an exhibition race, though makes the outcome ten times more painful. This event, under the right circumstances was ripe for fireworks, filled with more fired-up rivalries then we’ve ever seen during the Chase era. You had Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano. Kyle Busch-Kasey Kahne. Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch. Tony Stewart-Joey Logano. Clint Bowyer-Jeff Gordon. Lugnut the Charlotte Mascot versus whomever made it to Victory Lane. You get the picture. But instead, the artistic result that was painted was better suited to be in your local library. We didn’t hear so much as a peep of drama, the types of hard knocks that saw Davey Allison spun at the finish line in 1992 replaced by the doldrums of drivers simply clicking off laps.
That’s important, because after a period of years boredom begins to translate into a sense of permanence with NASCAR’s fan base. When it’s an All-Star night, there’s no lure of a regular season race and the points for their favorite driver that go with it. Expected results, instead of unexpected chaos give the fans the impression it’s not worth watching – especially when it’s the same drivers and teams, almost to a T they see 37 other weeks during the year. No wonder this race has been the lowest-rated Cup event on television for well over a decade running.
Perhaps a change of scenery, long recommended for this event would help spice things up. It’s a lot easier to enact revenge, after all at Bristol instead of a racetrack where top speeds approach 200 miles an hour. It did seem, at least for Kurt Busch an extra million dollar bonus for winning all the segments on the night would matter. But drivers can only do so much if the car won’t let them on the edge of control. That turns things into a track position, strategic type of an event and no one’s going to drive that horse better than Mr. Johnson and crew chief Mr. Chad Knaus.
The end result meant their fourth career trophy, setting an All-Star Race record that launched them above the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Jeff Gordon. There’s no question Johnson earned it; the problem is, that check was already written, the racing resembling little more than “Who’s in first?” NASCAR fans are clearly looking for more.
Otherwise, they’ll keep looking elsewhere.
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