All-Star Week on the Cup circuit normally invokes a cry of “Change the format!” from this writer and long-time NASCAR geek. The 10-lap shootout that concluded what was The Winston for years were 10 of my most anticipated laps of the year — points or no.
Earnhardt/Elliott/Bodine in 1987, Rusty and Darrell in ’89, Kyle and Davey ’92… even Mikey’s unlikely sprint past Earnhardt and Rusty in ’96: these were all products of the 10-lap shootout before NASCAR took it away a few years ago.
However, this season the boys on the Beach finally got it right. After a few mind-numbingly mundane All-Star Anti-Climaxes, the powers that be have brought back our beloved 10-lap shootout. Of course, a 10-lapper in the final segment doesn’t guarantee an instant classic, but it’ll get us a lot closer to one than last season’s parade, when a 20-lap finale allowed cars to string out. Clean air was the order of the day one year ago, and while it may come into play once again, I can’t imagine it being the determining factor in a win.
This week’s first question deals with the All-Star Race. It’s legit, too: There have been so many tweaks over the years, it’s hard to keep the ground rules straight going in. With that …
Matt, with all the changes the All-Star Race has undergone over the previous decade can you give me a rundown of who is eligible and what the new rules in place for this season’s race are? Thanks! — Thomas Bell, Sunbury, PA
A: Good idea, Thomas. Let’s run this down real quick for use as a reference come Saturday night.
16 drivers are locked in to the All-Star Race by virtue of winning at least one points-paying race in 2008 and/or 2009. One driver, Bobby Labonte, is in by virtue of his Cup title in 2000, and Kevin Harvick is in as a past winner of the event. (Terry Labonte was also eligible as a past Cup champ, but declined to participate).
Above and beyond the aforementioned 18 that are locked in, two drivers will transfer from the prelim — the Sprint Showdown’s winner and runner-up — and lest we not forget, one more gets added by the fan vote — heretofore to be known as the “Kasey Clause.” That brings us to 21 by my count.
As for the event itself, there will be four segments: A 50-lapper followed by two 20s and (all together now) the 10-lap dash for cash. Now we’re not done just yet, Thomas. See, in the 50-lapper mandatory pit stops will occur on lap 25 and all teams must take four tires. Pitting after the first segment is optional, as is pitting after the second.
A 10-minute break follows the third segment, in which teams can make normal adjustments to the cars — and then the field will line up as it finished the third heat to begin the 10-lapper.
Only green flag laps in that last glorious segment, by the way. Winner takes home a cool mill…
Should SMI sacrifice an Infineon date for a Kentucky date? My take: Yes. Santa Rosa is not the best place for NASCAR. Infineon will definitely survive losing NASCAR. They have a state of the art drag race facility, the road course is booked multiple months of the year to support SCCA, road course schools, Mazda Series and several classic races.
Moving the date to Kentucky will allow SMI to make a larger profit than keeping the schedule as it is now. I would prefer the Infineon date go to a second date for Vegas than Kentucky. — Doug Scholl, Ramona, CA
A: Ah, the eternal “to turn right or not to turn right” question. Whether or not SMI should sacrifice its sole road course is somewhat moot, Doug. It ain’t gonna happen. Your logic is justified in why Infineon could thrive with or without the Cup race, but that doesn’t change the fact that a Cup race at any venue is a huge moneymaker — bigger than any other all year — and the least prosperous are the ones that will offer their dates up to the company’s bottom line (if that makes any sense).
Unfortunately, it looks as though Atlanta or possibly New Hampshire would be the victims of a race-gouging should Bruton get his Kentucky date approved — at least that’s the word on the street. My personal opinion: I like having two roadies to mix things up a bit; heck, I’d be in favor of a third if NASCAR wanted to slot one in the Chase. But before it’s all said and done, Vegas will have a second date and Kentucky will have its one. It may not happen in 2010, but next season’s slate may look a lot different regardless.
Matt, in lieu of the fact that Mark [Martin] will be back next year and that Rick [Hendrick] will not have an open seat (assuming he doesn’t tell Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to get lost) how about Stewart-Haas expands to a third team and gives the ride to Brad Keselowski? Sure seems to me the kid can drive a racecar. One would think between Hendrick and Stewart they could find a sponsor. What do you think? — Don Wolf, Eustis, FL
A: What do I think? I think Brad’s seventh-place showing at Darlington was more impressive than his win at Talladega, Don. Make no mistake, the Talladega win was one for the ages — it’ll go down in NASCAR lore — but the kid really proved something last weekend. He showed that in Hendrick equipment he can run with the big boys in pretty adverse circumstances.
As for his future, we see potential openings in the seats of the Nos. 00, 1, 6, 26 and 83 rides due to contracts being up before next season. Rumor has it Kurt Busch is a possible free agent as well, although he’s denied that. Then there’s the talk of Gibbs going to a fourth car or another door (besides Kurt’s) opening at Penske. And who knows what turnover we’ll witness at other shops like RPM or EGR. My point? The future is awfully cloudy right now and that makes a jump from Hendrick possible… but hard to pin down.
One thing’s for sure: Keselowksi’s made it known that he’s ready to go Cup racing full-time next year. He’s also said he’s “exclusively” talking with the boys in-house on a long-term deal.
“I know that to make that next step, I need to run full-time,” Keselowski said the week after his Talladega win. “I need to have a full-time ride at the Cup level to be a guy who can run for the Chase or take wins. So it’s a matter of making that lineup.”
There’s the line in the sand.
I’d think a third Stewart-Haas ride makes a lot of sense, particularly if they keep their performances up. It’ll all come down to sponsorship, though; that, and being assured of a full schedule. The one scenario I don’t believe would be beneficial involves bringing JR Motorsports up to Cup, a topic that’s been tossed around. I think Junior has enough on his plate as it is.
Regardless, Keselowski looks to be on a fast-track to success. The question now is “Where?”
OK, that’s it for the week. Enjoy the All-Star Race, folks. And did I remember to mention that there’s a 10-lap shootout involved?