You would think that after 23 previous All-Star Races under NASCAR’s belt they would pretty much have a formula in place that guaranteed an exciting and fun evening of racing entertainment. But last Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Challenge demonstrated just how little it is possible to learn in almost a quarter century. The truth is, with the exception of the Kasey Kahne storyline of winning after being voted into the event by fans… the race has left little in the way of NASCAR journalists to expound on.
Lets just skip right past the PC depiction of the race as ho-hum and offer a more accurate depiction of what fans witnessed at Lowe’s Motor Speedway… a stinker!
There is absolutely no reason why, considering the rules for eligibility that has virtually the whole field consisting of race winners from last season, past All-Star Race winners or Cup champions, should not be the best racing exhibition of the season. Defying the odds, though… it wasn’t.
That I passed on an opportunity to re-visit Altamont Raceway as the Mrs. and I motorhome our way back and forth across the greatest country in the world has probably increased my agitation over Saturday night’s dud. But based on past experience, I assumed that the Sprint All-Star Challenge would be every bit as exciting.
As someone that prides himself in keeping up with the happenings in the world of stock car racing, I have no one but myself to blame for missing the change in format that eliminated the last segment of a 10-lap shootout for the $1 million prize. The final dash was a simple wrinkle in the contest that assured fans of a frantic, hair-raising conclusion to the contest.
Honest, had I researched this year’s event more thoroughly, I would have opted for the modified, USAC Sprint Car and twin-50 NASCAR Whelen Late Model features evening instead. I knew the Altamont show would be good, as it always is. Granted, they don’t compete for $1 million payouts, but when you have 20-30 guys out there racing their hearts out, sometimes for the rent money… they tend to put on one heck of a good show.
It’s clear what happened. The 25-lap segments turned into an all too typical race on a 1.5-mile NASCAR track. Speed venues where the best car at any given time during the contest can gain a two-second advantage over the rest of the field in short order. A lead that might dissipate in a longer segment as the handling in the lead cars go away due to tire wear, fuel burn-off or track condition changes. 25 laps is just long enough time to build a big lead, but short enough not to lose it.
“I think it’s more exciting for the fans to have a 10-lap shootout,” four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. “I think right now the guys are saying, ‘I don’t have to push hard if my car is good, I can let my car come to me and make the pass when I’m not bunched up on the restart. I think with 10 to go you gotta go as soon as they drop the green and go hammer down.”
Gordon, a three-time winner of the All-Star event “gets it,” even if NASCAR didn’t. That’s what spectators expect out of the exhibition. Excitement!
Of course in reality the event should not even be held at Lowe’s if a track suited for allowing drivers to demonstrate their behind-the-wheel all-star abilities was the primary consideration. Bristol, Darlington and Richmond all come to mind as tracks more conducive to the mano y mano type of competition that the event should be striving for. Though, it would be difficult to tell the President and General Manager of the facility, “Humpy” Wheeler, who has done a commendable job of developing and promoting the event for so long that his services were no longer needed.
Wheeler, is to stock car racing what P.T. Barnum was to the circus… a promotor extraordinaire. And he has not been exactly remiss over the years in attempting to create a fan-first festive agenda for the ticket-buying crowd that visits his track. The Thursday night Pit Crew Challenge held at the Time Warner Arena, Friday’s Craftsman Truck race and Sprint All-Star Race qualifying format requiring three timed laps with a four-tire pit stop included certainly are intended to be for the fans enjoyment. Saturday’s Inaugural Pennzoil Victory Challenge burnout contest certainly was a unique concept that surely some in attendance appreciated. The Showdown race wherein the top-two finishers move on to the All-Star finale and the rest go home is certainly intended to provide that fans with a heaping helping of drama.
Considering all the pre-race happenings it would be unfair to insinuate that the fans are not first and foremost in Humpy’s mind. Unfortunately though, the featured race failed to live-up to all the All-Star hoopla.
Not to say there hasn’t been other disappointing All-Star competitions in the past. But none as strikingly uninteresting as this year’s version. And of course the exhibition has always held the possibility of creating a new memorable chapter in NASCAR history. Such as the famous “Pass in the Grass” (wasn’t actually a pass) that saw the late Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott take the race into the infield for a time.
There were not the harsh words such as those that Darrell Waltrip directed at Rusty Wallace in 1989 after Wallace used the old “chrome horn” to claim the All-Star victory, “I hope Rusty Wallace chokes on that $200,000 [first prize money].” Heck, even last year’s contest saw the lovable Busch brothers tangle 62 laps into the race resulting in neither speaking to the other until Christmas dinner at folks house almost seven months later.
Past All-Star formats have delivered the excitement by creating scenarios such as 1992’s classic when Kyle Petty, after spinning Earnhardt out of the lead, was hotly pursued by the late Davey Allison. Both, intent on winning the grand prize, rubbed paint at the finish line with Allison winning, but immediately wrecking requiring him to skip the post-race celebration… as he was transported to the hospital with a concussion.
Memories. The All-Star classic has created many… but not in 2008.
So what will I be doing during the 2009 All-Star Challenge? Watching it. Humpy will fix this problem.
He has to.
And that’s my view from turn 5.