NASCAR and Sprint announced a brand-new format for the season-opening exhibition race formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout this week. The race, rebranded the Sprint Unlimited (an admittedly shameless plug for the cellular carrier’s unlimited data plans) will be similar to the old Shootout in its 75-lap, three-segment format, but from there what will happen is anybody’s guess.
Race fans will vote on everything from the length of each segment to the firesuit that Miss Sprint Cup will wear in Victory Lane (no, really). That includes a pit stop (or not) after the first segment, whether to eliminate the backmarkers after the second, and even how the field will be set.
It’s great to see race fans involved in the decisions for the race. It is, after all, not a points event, and it’s a way for them to connect with a sport they often say doesn’t listen to their opinions. The options themselves, put forth through a fan survey set up all sorts of interesting questions. Unfortunately, NASCAR and Sprint also dropped the ball in some key areas.
It will be interesting to see how the choices unfold. The first question they will need to answer, by voting either on “NASCAR’s website”:www.NASCAR.com/SprintUnlimited or on their new NASCAR Mobile ’13 smartphone app (Mobile app votes will count twice in Shameless Plug No. 2. Well played, Sprint and NASCAR), will be the lengths of the three segments of the race. The options are 40/20/15, 35/30/10, or 30/25/20. Darrell Waltrip, who was in attendance at Sprint’s program during the Sprint Media Tour Hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway on Monday, says that as a driver, he would want the last segment to be about 15 laps. The question on that option lies with the 40-lap opening segment, though: can the Gen6 racecar make 40 laps on fuel at Daytona? Waltrip conceded that the 10-lap final push, paired with a 35-lap opening segment would probably be the most exciting for fans — though it might not give some drivers enough time to make the moves they’d like to pull off.
The next choice fans will make is whether the cars will be required to perform either a two or four-tire pit stop after the first segment. The catch here is that voting doesn’t end until the green flag flies, meaning that teams won’t know ahead of time how it will play out. If fans vote for a stop, the way in which they come off pit road will determine the restart order; that gives a boost to a team with a fast pit crew who needs track position. If fans vote for no stops, teams will not be allowed to stop until after the green flag flies for the second segment, meaning they’ll all pit under green. That could be a disaster for someone if they should have a bad stop or receive a penalty.
The part I like about all these decisions is that any one of them could launch any driver to the win or take him out of contention just as easily. That makes them harder to make. The next vote, which ends at the green flag for the second segment, is whether any of the cars finishing at the back of the pack in that segment should be eliminated before the third. Fans can decide whether the last two, four, or six cars should be eliminated, or if none should be. This choice isn’t as easy as it seems — it’s a trick question, if you will.
Why? Because it’s not a given that the drivers fans think will be back there actually will. The last-place driver could just as easily be Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as Ken Schrader, with the parity of plate racing and so this one is a definite gamble. If the voting is a landslide for a larger number of cars to be eliminated, the outcome of the first segment could also play a role. Fans can vote through the first segment, but if there is an insurmountable number voted for elimination and there is a big multi-car pileup in the first segment and a six-car elimination in the second, it’s possible that the field at the end could be pretty depleted. Another incident in the last segment could leave the race to be decided by just a couple of cars.
The final important fan decision (Sorry, Miss Sprint Cup, but which uniform you wear really isn’t important) can only be voted on by fans at the track on race day. It determines how the field is set for the start of the race. Again, the choices are varied and not easy. They can set the field by numerical order of car number (which would put Kasey Kahne on the pole but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the back), 2012 points finish (which would put Earnhardt, Jr. in the top 10 but Jimmie Johnson on the pole), or by their speed in practice for the event (which could put anyone on the pole).
The decision to let the fans decide all those things is a good one. Making the votes end so late that teams will have to think on their feet is even better. But there are a couple of things that didn’t happen here that really should have.
First up, yes, the race is for pole winners and past event champions. But it doesn’t seem right to have the first Sprint Cup race of the year, exhibition status aside, not include the series’ reigning champion. In fact, both the champion and runner-up from 2012 are notably absent; Jimmie Johnson is the highest points finisher in the race, and he finished a fading third. Perhaps there should be a provision to include all active past series champs (I believe this accomplishment was, once upon a time, paired with an automatic inclusion in the Bud Shootout). Doing so wouldn’t have made the field much bigger; only current champ Brad Keselowski and Bobby Labonte would be added. If Sprint wanted to be more restrictive, perhaps only the current champion should receive an additional invite. But either way, Keselowski should be in the race. Pole or no, he proved he was the best driver in the series in 2012.
I also found it ironic that one of the choices for starting lineup is practice speed… because it was that very technicality that eliminates Casey Mears from the race. Mears started on the pole at Bristol in August based on his practice speed after qualifying was rained out. To me, if the field is set by practice speed, the fastest driver should be credited with a pole (If both are rained out and the field set by points, then fine, no pole.). That practice session becomes, by default, qualifying, once the rains come. Whoever topped the charts in that practice is, then, the fastest qualifier. If some teams didn’t practice in qualifying trim, even knowing the forecast, that’s not the fastest driver’s fault. The choice of setup is the same for each team to make, and all of them had the chance to post a faster lap, just as they do in a regular qualifying session. That Mears runs for an underfunded, single-car operation makes his exclusion sting just a bit more.
Speaking of the smaller teams, the champion, and everyone else, there was a huge missed opportunity to add some excitement by having a last chance race for the teams which did not otherwise qualify for the Shootout — er, Unlimited. They could have a separate practice session from the invitees so as not to affect the start, especially if fans vote to use practice times. These drivers could then have run, in theory one 15-lap race for one spot in the main event. Just like the hooligan race at your local short track, a race like this one would add some excitement to the hours before the big show. In addition, it would level the playing field for the Daytona 500 a bit because all teams would have at least some time under race conditions in the Gen6 cars. All in all, it would give everyone, from fans to race teams, more bang for their buck… and who doesn’t like that?
All in all, there were plenty of great additions to the pre-season special. Letting the fans vote for how the race will be run, and the element of uncertainty that it lends because the teams won’t know the format ahead of time was a brilliant decision. But some balls were dropped along the way – two cars that by many counts earned the right to be in the race were excluded, and a great opportunity for more competition was missed. What could have been a huge score by NASCAR and Sprint is dampened by who and what was left out. Instead of score one for NASCAR, it’s more like a half.
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