Looking for the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How behind Saturday night’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Sprint Showdown: Although he only ran to a 12th-place result in the race, Bobby Labonte still made the All-Star Race thanks to the fan vote. It was a fine choice, made for a driver who remains a class act all the way. Labonte, the 2000 Cup champ, wasn’t even slated to enter the Showdown two weeks ago due to a lack of funding, so the folks who stepped up to back the No. 47 share the spotlight with the wheelman they believed in. “There’s a lot of great racecar drivers that could get this same type of vote,” said Labonte in the media center after learning that he won. “Thank the fans for doing that; that is a great honor, obviously. [I’ve] been doing this a long time, so I always try to do the right thing. Sometimes, that pays off in the end.” It certainly paid off for Labonte on Saturday.
All-Star Race: If there was a prize for tenacity, Kurt Busch would have been in Victory Lane to receive it. Busch, running for one of the most underfunded teams in the elite field, bounced off the wall early and finished near the back of the early segments. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Even with a damaged car, Busch raced like it was for the win, running three-wide and never backing down from anyone’s challenge. And Busch’s perseverance paid off: he finished seventh in the final 20-lap segment and eighth overall. A week after showing the worst of Kurt Busch, Busch showed the best in Charlotte.
What… was THAT?
The format of the All-Star race changes more often than some people change underwear, but one thing that was glaringly absent was the mandatory four-tire pit stop. The stop added strategy to the race and kept the team element in it as well; instead, pit crews were left holding pom poms, cheerleading instead of using their air wrenches. This event has been traditionally as much about the team as the driver, and part of that feeling was missing on Saturday night. If anything, NASCAR should have added one to the Sprint Showdown, not taken it away from the All-Star Race. One of the most memorable finishes in the event was Jeff Burton’s segment win where crew chief Frank Stoddard, realizing that their pit was the last one before the start-finish line, made the call to let everyone pit before Burton. This brought Burton down pit road on the final lap, where he rolled across for the segment win. It was a brilliant piece of strategy (so brilliant, in fact, that NASCAR made a rule change the following year to prevent anyone from doing it again). Yes, Burton ultimately had a transmission failure that kept him from winning the whole shebang, but the strategy up to that point kept the night entertaining. This year’s race felt a little hollow without any chance of a pit crew stealing the spotlight.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Sprint Showdown: You have to wonder what zip code AJ Allmendinger might have ended up in if he hadn’t had to pit for a flat tire on the pace laps. Allmendinger was forced to pit road as the green flag fell, but managed to stay on the lead lap through the first 20-lap segment. It was then, after catching up to the field for segment 2 when the show began. Allmendinger came from the back of the pack all the way to second place by the time the checkers flew 20 laps later. The driver executed an exciting, aggressive charge to the front, saying afterward, “Everybody in this organization, especially on the [No.] 22 car, they’re used to winning, used to being in this race. I wasn’t going to let them down. I was going to do everything I could to get in there, or I was going to wreck trying.” Allmendinger’s run illustrated one more thing: if he can find a little luck, he’s going to win points races.
All-Star Race: Kyle Busch took his third pole is seven All-Star appearances and entered the race with immense confidence in himself, his cars and his team. It appeared that Busch was on his way to a first-segment blowout as he led the first 14 laps, but then Jimmie Johnson showed up and inhaled the No. 18 within shouting distance from the finish. For the rest of the night, Busch and his team struggled to make the car handle. The driver reported a tight condition, running the next three segments in eighth, 12th and ninth, respectively, before making a charge in the final segment to finish fourth.
When… will I be loved?
Sprint Showdown: Although Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the Showdown was a fan favorite, it was a wayward left-front tire that may have robbed the fans of the kind of finish that people talk about for years. Allmendinger had a lightning-fast car, and had he been able to start from P1, he might have given Earnhardt a real run for his money. He certainly gave everyone else one.
All-Star Race: The main event of the night showcased the ability of the best drivers in the sport to race side-by-side without making a single wrong move. Not only were there no boneheaded moves, there were virtually no mistakes save for a couple of single-car brushes with the wall. But that didn’t mean that the fans didn’t have a villain or two, and they made their feelings known during driver introductions. It was a close race for the soundest round of boos, but in the end, Kyle Busch nipped Johnson by a whisker. Judging by both drivers’ weekends, it’s a safe bet that neither one minded being the villain.
Why… don’t we see racing like this every week?
It all boils down to two main reasons: money and the emphasis put on the season championship. Racecars are expensive; a winning Cup effort costs more than $250,000 for a single race. Teams can afford to sacrifice one car going all out for a $1 million payout, but they can’t do it every week, especially when the focus is contending for a championship. The teams who have the resources to win every week are the same ones who have the resources to aim for the Chase — and they’re doing exactly what they need to to do that, which isn’t always racing for the win. Brad Keselowski said it best in the media center after the All-Star Race: “I hate conserving cars when they’re supposed to race.” But, unfortunately, conserving cars has become the name of the game.
Could NASCAR do anything to change that? Well, yes. I’m not a fan of giving the title to the guy with the most wins, because there are too many numbers in play; if someone has eight wins but a dozen DNFs from engine woes or wrecks, I’m not convinced that he’s championship caliber that year. But what they could do is this: redistribute the year-end point fund into bonuses for the winner of each race and give the champion and the rest of the top 10 a nice trophy and a trip to Las Vegas, and nothing more. By making the week-to-week races the focus of the season, teams might be willing to take more chances. But with the spotlight on the championship and especially the Chase format, you’ll see fewer teams willing to put it all on the line for a win.
How… could All-Star weekend be made even better?
Although the Saturday night special showcased some of the best racing the sport has to offer, it could be even better with a few tweaks. First, as stated earlier, there needs to be a mandatory four-tire stop somewhere during the race. It could be used to shuffle up the segments, or during the final 10-lap dash, but it would take away the advantage that the first-segment winner has by at least providing the opportunity for mistakes, or for brilliance by another team.
Also, although it might disappoint some fans, the last few drivers in each segment should be eliminated. That would prevent the segment winners hanging back as well as make for some wild racing as the laps wind down in each segment. Yes, the fans of the eliminated drivers would miss seeing them finish up, but how is that any different than those whose favorites never make the show at all?