It never really occurred to me until the conclusion of the Sprint All Star Challenge Saturday night, but I’ve got a couple of beefs with NASCAR’s exhibition weekend. For starters, the drivers racing each other are no different than any other week. Gordon, Johnson, Stewart. These are the names we hear and think about that headline this generation’s group of all-stars. However, we see these same names compete against each other along with the same 40 other racers in the field each and every week. It’s kind of an oxymoron when you think about it, since these same “all-stars” are racing each other in every race. The only difference is that the actual All-Star event is an abbreviated race with a shortened field and it’s a time where “debris” (competition) cautions are acceptable and without controversy, because they don’t count.
As far as who is eligible to make the race each year, NASCAR has done a good job with that, allowing winners from the current and previous season, former All-Star race winners (for ten years after their win) along with champions within the past 10 years to automatically qualify. Then, there is the Sprint Showdown and a fan vote that gives non-eligible drivers one last opportunity to fill in the final three spots. But really, what makes it any more special watching these guys race than any other weekend? Not much, other than there are no points on the line, and that supposedly makes the drivers more daring than they would be in an official race.
My other, bigger gripe that reached a new high this weekend is the constant rule changing each and every year. As was well documented during the telecast, the winner from the first four segments would automatically be locked in the top 4 going into the final mandatory pit stop before the final 10 lap dash. The pit stop could be a simple stop and go, or it could be a four tire stop. Before the race even started, I was really skeptical of this rule. Part of what is supposed to make the All-Star race special is the unpredictability factor, but with any segment winner almost assured of starting the final dash in the top 4 as long as they stay on the lead lap it made the ending much easier to forecast. I won’t even get into my displeasure about the segment winners just logging laps until the end, but my point is that the Sprint All-Star Challenge didn’t live up to its hype.
Between these two issues along with the fact I like to imagine things, I thought it would be fun to dream up my ideal all-star race. It would pit NASCAR’s best against each other, not just drivers of the present, but legends from the past. Here are the qualifications:
Drivers must be a modern era champion.
Why exclude any champs from 1972 on back? Because the schedules either had way too few or too many races compared to the current era and make a racer’s credentials impossible to compare. No disrespect to my home state driver and first-ever series champion Red Byron, but would you rather see him, who ran only 15 races, or first ballot Hall of Famer and owner of 50 career Cup wins Junior Johnson in a race of NASCAR’s all stars? If this qualification bothers you, don’t worry, qualification number two should make you feel better:
If not a modern-era champ, a driver must have a career winning percentage of 10.0% or higher with a minimum of 200 starts. (20 wins in 200 starts, for example)
This rule covers the earlier issue of having too many or not enough races prior to the modern era. Snagging a victory in Cup competition always has been–and still is–very hard, and you could make an argument it’s just as hard as winning a championship. After all, there have been only 182 men to hoist a trophy in 2328 sanctioned events while 28 different drivers have been the season champ in 63 years of competition. Having said that, to be able to win a race in every ten attempts is an incredible feat that very few have accomplished. I was tempted to make the percentage a little lower, but this is the ultimate all-star event, and the qualifications must be strict. This rule would bring in champs before the modern era like Bobby Isaac, Ned Jarrett, Joe Weatherly, Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Rex White, and David Pearson. It would also include non-champions Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson.
The final two spots would be for the “best of the rest,” or the showdown winner and a fan vote. Give the showdown winner to Tim Flock, a two-time champion and a win ratio of 1 in 5 in 187 career starts. The fan vote would go to current Cup series driver Mark Martin. (What? Not Dale Jr.? I know, get over it.)
That would give us a field of 28 legends:
Now is the part where fantasy meets reality, with the next hopes being an actual possibility. The venue that hosts the race would change each year, but short tracks would be the most common visits. However, the first stop would be at Darlington, a track that arguably tests driver talent more than any other facility. Now that they have been visiting the track just once a year since 2005, it would make perfect sense for NASCAR to try to regain some of their lost fans by hosting another race at the Track Too Tough To Tame, points event or not.
As for the format, the number of segments and laps would depend on the type of track the series visits. The current set up of 20-20-20-20-10 at Charlotte is fine, although I would do away with one segment and just add some laps to the other ones, excluding the final ten lap sprint. At places such as Atlanta and Darlington, where the tires wear out faster, it would be nice to see a segment that goes 40 laps with no pit stop to see who can conserve their tires best.
I would bring back the survival of the fastest theme that was run about ten years ago, where a certain number of drivers would be eliminated after each segment. In a field of 28, it would be cut to 20 after one segment and down to 15 after the second portion. After two elimination rounds, we would then be treated to the field inversion, another gimmick that used to be involved in the race. A random draw would decide the amount of cars inverted, with 12, 8, 4, and 0 being the options. With the possibility of no positions being swapped, it would reduce the chances of the leaders sandbagging which had been a problem in the past. Add it all up and it would be the perfect race.
Obviously, this is a dream that could never happen. It’s fun to imagine, though, and the prospects of having the series race elsewhere besides Charlotte has been discussed – and as a matter fact has been tried out, albeit over twenty years ago. Changing where the series races each year and sticking to a consistent format is the only part of my dream that could become a reality, but I don’t have my hopes up about it. At the end of the day though, it’s still a race and I’m getting to see cars go around in circles and circles, so it’s tough to complain too much about the current format of the All Star Challenge. One can dream though.
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