Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Friday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with 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?
It’s never easy to lose a race. But is there any loss more difficult to swallow than finishing third in the Sprint Showdown? Casey Mears ran one of his strongest races on an intermediate track with the No. 13 team, driving from mid-pack after the competition caution to his third-place finish. It was the kind of run this team has been searching for this year after inking a support deal with Richard Childress Racing. The next step is for them to do it with a full field, but Mears drove more confidently Friday night than he has in a long time, and that’s a big piece of the puzzle. Perhaps the race, as disappointing as it had to be for Mears and Co., will be the catalyst for a strong summer run that will see them reach the next level in the sport. That would surely take the sting away.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about racing at Charlotte after dark this week. “As late as it gets in the night, at this track,” he said, “The groove narrows up. It gets faster and faster on the bottom and there’s no time to be gained in trying to step up the race track or run the high line like you might during the afternoon. So, it’s a really fascinating race track in the middle of the day. But, as it gets darker and darker and cooler and cooler, the groove really shortens up. So you need to be in that top three, I think, to have a shot at it.”
While Earnhardt went on to say that made earlier segments of the races count more, it’s hard to say that Charlotte Motor Speedway is the same track it was a decade ago, before it was ground smooth and repaved. Like so many tracks with newer surfaces, Charlotte’s racing has suffered in recent years, and that’s magnified when the racing is at night, making clean air and aerodynamic dependence too important. The final segment Friday was typical night racing, on an intermediate track and it didn’t leave fans of anyone but Bowyer and Allmendinger with much to cheer for.
Where… did the polesitter and the Fan Vote winner wind up?
Austin Dillon edged AJ Allmendinger for the pole, but he couldn’t keep up with Allmendinger or Clint Bowyer in the first segment. After taking two tires on the final stop, Dillon couldn’t keep up with the frontrunners at all, falling to eighth by the end of the race, behind two RCR satellite teams. The freshman is still searching for the right feel in Cup cars, and while he’s shown potential, his rookie season illustrates just how difficult the jump to Cup really is.
Josh Wise won the Fan Vote thanks to a community of devotees to his sponsor, Dogecoin/Reddit, and his team gets some extra exposure they badly need. That’s a good thing for Wise and Phil Parsons Racing, but unfortunately, winning the vote can’t make their racecars any faster. Wise finished 18th of 23 drivers in the Showdown, and it’s likely that he’ll be woefully outclassed in the All-Star Race, where he won’t have any other small teams in it except for David Ragan’s Front Row Motorsports operation. Wise was a feel-good story Friday night, but he was a non-contender in the main event.
When… did it all go sideways?
The racing was pretty good, but there was something missing. NASCAR’s decision to move the Showdown to Friday night may have put some extra bottoms in the seats for the Camping World Truck Series race, but it took something away from the Shootout, somehow. It’s hard to argue that this adjustment was really a move for the fans, because it seems as though it takes something away from the All-Star experience. Fans with tickets to only Saturday’s event won’t see their favorites race at all if they didn’t race into the main event. Also, what’s the incentive for fans who are local to the track to buy tickets on race day if their favorite team has already been eliminated and won’t even be at the track on Saturday? Also, does letting the drivers from this race qualify with the points race winners for the All-Star Race really make sense? At your local track, the winner of the last-chance race generally starts at the back of the pack, and giving them a shot at the pole just doesn’t seem right. Overall, this experiment was a bust… but will NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway fix their mistake in the future?
Why… did Bowyer win the race?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason that Bowyer prevailed when he and his team did a lot right. Yes, Bowyer, with eight career wins, is one of just five drivers in the field to ever visit Victory Lane in the Cup Series, but there were some strong teams out there for him to race, and his Michael Waltrip Racing team responded, giving Bowyer a strong car. After the event, Bowyer, told that his team will take part in qualifying for the All-Star Race and not merely start in the back, said of the field, “they’re screwed.” He was joking, but there was no denying his confidence after winning the Shootout – a confidence that has been missing to one degree or another since last fall and “Spingate.”
Bowyer had a good car, his crew chief made the four-tire call that would prove to be the best decision for the closing segment, and once Bowyer got to the lead in clean air, he couldn’t be caught. Only two drivers have won the Shootout (or its previous incarnations) and gone on to win the All-Star Race, so the odds are against Bowyer, but he was having a fine time on Friday night.
How… much action can fans expect on Saturday?
Based on both Friday night’s race and recent All-Star events, there will be some hard charging in the field, but the “checkers or wreckers” attitude that used to make the event memorable seems to be just something from the history books. Drivers have admitted that the All-Star Race is most valuable as a test session for next week’s points-paying Coca-Cola 600, because teams don’t get nighttime practice for that race.
Take a look at recent events. From 2002-07, an average of seven teams failed to finish the All-Star Race due to crashing. From 2008-13, an average of two cars crashed out of the field. While it’s hard to advocate for crashing, the lack thereof in recent years could point to teams not racing as hard for the $1 million payout. Is that because they’re in test mode for a points championship, whose payout is far more than the $1 million prize for the All-Star event? Is it because the field isn’t as closely matched since the track was repaved and aerodynamic dependence is king? Maybe because the cost of a torn-up racecar is greater than the purse for finishing at the back of the pack? It’s hard to say, but the numbers say that something’s up, and the old-school mindset of going for all the glory at any cost in this non-points event appears to be something of the past.