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Happiness Is… Rules, Bewilderment & the Next Big Hotness

Hip hip hooray, the Sprint All-Star Race is here.

Forgive Happiness Is for starting this week’s column in a rather negative way, but seriously, the All-Star Race. This race may once have been interesting but now looks like another example of NASCAR’s desire to milk the fans for everything they’re worth (hello, two-day format) while offering a product that is no different than the usual one.

Let’s look at the race from a few angles. First, it’s the same drivers that are on the track every week. Well, OK, Kyle Busch hasn’t been on track at all this year but he’ll be in the race. Otherwise, there’s nothing that seems substantially different. Oh, hey, look, it’s Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth!  Do they ever race against each other? It’s not like other sports where the drivers are cobbled together to form a team, it’s the same drivers doing the same thing on a track that already has two other races.

Then there’s the track. Charlotte is fast, beautiful and at the heart of the sport. It is, however, also a track where aero dependence is huge, which means that it doesn’t allow for much in the way of beatin’ n’ bangin’. So any possibility of unleashing frustrations on another driver, as one might at a short track, are negated and the racing pretty much looks the same.

How about the format? Oh, right, the one that changes every year? Does it really matter how many laps are in each segment or if there is a mandatory four-tire pit stop? The combination of these factors seem to add up to a wanton exercise in manufactured entertainment – and we get enough of that each week with the late-race cautions.

One final note: aside from the purse, what is the significance? It’s not like the driver who wins is going to share any of the money with the rest of us and some teams have turned the festivities into a glorified testing session, working on their cars for the Coca-Cola 600. To further illustrate the point about worthiness, here’s the question: Who won in 2014? If you didn’t have to look it up, like Happiness Is did, then more power to you. And no, it’s not Johnson, even though he seems to win everything.

Happiness Is… Rules. In the oft-overlooked piece of cinematic genius Rad, the main character, Cru Jones, is faced with ever developing rules to keep him out of the big race at Helltrack. Thus a main component of the story is how Jones and his people overcome not only long odds but also the difficulties in navigating a contemporary corporate world that tends to offer the little guys no favors. But the rules are an overarching theme, and when Jones does make the big race, he’s overcome every one of them.

What does the classic BMX film have to do with NASCAR? Nothing, just wanted to mention the film.

Kidding. The difference now is that corporate America would love to sell the story of such an upstart. Busch’s return to the scene is no different. The sooner he can return, the sooner a new story is born and by offering Busch the possibility of making the Chase, he takes on that much more focus. Each week his results can be scrutinized to determine if he might crack into the top 30, and should he win, it gets even better.

Happiness Is…Bewilderment. One of the selling points for the All-Star Race is that it is supposed to feature racing at its most wild. There’s no points on the line! These guys (and girl) will do anything to win! Everything goes out the window! (What does that even mean?!) So it seems strange for a driver who is returning from a broken leg and a broken foot to make his 2015 debut at a race that very well may feature these drivers losing their mind.

It’s not like the races run wreck-free. In fact, there’s probably a board in Vegas where one can pick the lap range and how many cars will be taken out. So yeah, it seems smart that Busch will be testing himself in such smart circumstances. Sure, the cars are safer than they ever have been and Charlotte is no Daytona, but this move still seems rushed and perhaps a little ill-conceived.

Happiness Is… Next Big Hotness. When Kyle Larson won at Auto Club Speedway in the Xfinity Series and bested the likes of Kyle Busch and Harvick, NASCAR fans saw a driver who had the potential to make a splash in the sport. Larson has not quite matched the expectations that accompanied him to the Cup level but he’s been doing a pretty decent job – and one that must be considered against that fact that though he’s got Hendrick engines he doesn’t have their engineering department at Chip Ganassi’s joint.

Since Larson, there’s been the anointing of Chase Elliott as another superstar in waiting, especially after his rather solid NXS championship run. Elliott’s couple Cup runs haven’t been great but he’s gaining experience, something important for his age. But can everyone stop trying to force new drivers into the narrative. Sure, Brett Moffitt’s run at Atlanta in the second race of the season was a good story, but it hardly made him the next big thing even if that is what was being dished. Now Erik Jones has joined the fray, and though he looks like he might be quite the talent (possibly better than any of the other candidates for Next Big Hotness), how about everyone tempers things a bit and just lets things play out before trying to forecast his greatness?

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20 thoughts on “Happiness Is… Rules, Bewilderment & the Next Big Hotness”

  1. Negative??????? Perhaps……

    100% unvarnished truth????? Absolutely!

    The “all-star” (lower-case emphasized) orgy in Charloot (spelled that way on purpose) at this particular time every year did not always exist. Today it’s purpose is in question, and for good reason. A complete week off might actually be better than racing before the Memorial Day weekend and 600 miles at CMS.

    This event really seems to have outlived it’s usefulness and it’s meaning. If there is to be an ongoing event of this nature, the current format and location need to be completely re-thought.

    At the very least, location of an event like this should rotate among at least 4 or 5 tracks so that fans from other areas besides Concord NC and the surrounding area can experience the “excitement”….or maybe it doesn’t need to happen every year–it absolutely must move from location to location, whenever it is held in the future. The notion of being able to stay home for the crews is a self-serving “inside the industry” delusion–military folks who deploy for a minimum of 6 months with NO time home have ZERO sympathy for what the NASCAR crews do.

    Format – the concept has little real meaning when the same drivers and teams race each other every week. As bad as it was at the end, IROC had more real meaning than what the Sprint All-Star format of today offers. If that means finding a different sponsor, to provide a medium that can recognize all of the competitors, rather than focusing only on Sprint Cup drivers, as suggested below, so be it.

    The total focus on Sprint Cup is problematic, since there are three touring series that constitute what we’ve come to know as the “professional” NASCAR racing establishment of today. Rather than having an all-Cup event, it needs to be a combined event with a mix of all 3 series drivers–exactly how to bring them all together is something to be explored….perhaps using a format to run 3 short races.

    10 drivers from each series, in their own race vehicles, for 25 laps, with one mandatory stop between laps 12 & 15 for each series to establish a 4-driver transfer from each series “top 10” in points in the current season–and a final race in a generic racecar (a spec car prepared to be identical to all others, as was done in IROC) that the top 4 finishers of each of the 3 races will use to compete in the actual “All-Star” final event. A K&N Pro-style car, or even a NASCAR Europe “spec” car–all cars baselined and prepped with the same setup and as equal performance as possible–weight standardized for each driver, considering the variations in weight of drivers.

    No previous-winner guaranteed spots, no wild-cards, etc. If there are cautions in any of these 3 preliminary events (heat races), no pitting is permitted–mandatory green-flag pitting will occur only in the lap 12 to 15 window. If a caution occurs in the lap 12 to 15 window, drivers involved in the caution will be eliminated, and any un-pitted cars still in the race would pit on the next green lap after the caution. In the end, 4 drivers advance from each “heat” race to the main event.

    Make the finale only long enough to not require pit stops–40 laps on a 1.5 mile track. Have elimination points at 20 laps, dropping the last 4 drivers by position, then another 4-driver cut at 30 laps, with a caution, leaving 4 drivers to fight to the finish in a 10 lap shootout. A caution in the last 10 laps freezes the field, with only green-flag laps counting….wrecking means elimination. Wrecks as a result of contact eliminates the driver causing the wreck, as determined by officials. The whole point is to race clean to the end, and may the best driver win!

    • Wow that certainly has a lot of bells, whistles and moving parts. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
      I can’t say it would make me any more excited about it.

      • I hear ya…my approach is a bit convoluted, perhaps.

        Cliff’s Notes version:

        All Star race progression:

        3 qualifying heat races – 1 CW, 1 Xfinity, 1 Cup
        25 laps each, Top 10 in points, 4 transfers to the big event
        1 mandatory pit stop, lap 12-15

        Finale: 12 drivers, equal cars, 40 laps, no pit stops
        At 20 laps, position 9-12 black-flagged
        At 30 laps, position 5-8 black flagged (caution flag)
        Last 10 laps, 4 drivers, trophy dash

        Use 12 “control” cars (like IROC used to be), from one builder, NASCAR “partner” supplies and equalizes the cars, use a “spec” engine, such as the 525HP LS3 crate engine. No chassis adjustments.

        Could be done in a 4-hour time period. Move this event around every year–Charlotte has grown stale. There are plenty of tracks that deserve the opportunity to host this showcase, with fans that never would have an opportunity to go to Charlotte. No track larger than 1.5 miles to host – and smaller would be better.

        Iowa comes to mind…..

        • Well, without giving it any thought, I can agree 100% with that last paragraph. If they had the all-star race at Martinsville or Bristol (maybe even Richmond), that would definitely raise my interest. Imagine if beating and banging was encouraged and all the guys knew it and were prepared that contact would be part of the event (maybe that would keep the grudge mentality down a little). A car can sustain significant damage at either of those half-mile tracks and still be competitive.
          Of course, that’s just me. I know a lot of fans don’t really care for the short tracks because they are more interested in higher speeds. So it wouldn’t be a cure-all for what ails NASCAR.

        • How about cars identical except for the colors and decals with gelded engines. Oh, and they should be more aero dependent than kites so no actual racing takes place. Oh, we already have that……never mind.

          • If actual racing is what an All Star event would be about, has anyone here watched V8 Supercars or British Touring Car Championship events? Some of the closest and most exciting or entertaining RACING I’ve ever seen, and with far less power than any of the NASCAR touring series use.

            Yes, they are road courses, but that’s not my point. We could have a separate discussion/conversation about the relative merits of oval and road course racing…..I digress….the idea of having 12 pro drivers in equal equipment, not necessarily the fastest, most powerful, most expensive, best-funded equipment that a high-dollar team can supply to their driver(s) is where the notion of an All Star “best of the best” event has the most meaning.

            In baseball, the All-Star teams end up being selected by the fans. It doesn’t quite work that way in NASCAR–typically it’s more about which drivers have the best equipment or most success, which generally translates to which are best-funded. Today, the level of investment and preparation at Cup level is not that far apart from top of the scale to the cutoff point for who ends up in the All-Star race, but it just seems any differences would tend to make the event more about the cars than the drivers.

            Which approach is more meaningful, and to what end? Someone’s wallet gets fatter, either way, and who is to say which approach actually proves anything other than cubic dollars produce the best results for the team(s) that show up with more of it than any others?

            I would define success for the current All-Star NASCAR event as providing very close racing, some rubbing & bumping but NOT wrecking, and (in my suggested format) all 4 drivers being sideways coming to the checkered flag.

            With the current cars, even with reduced power, and at a track like Charlotte, where speeds are high enough to bring aerodynamic conditions into the mix, there can be no rubbing or bumping without wrecking–and that is definitely NOT racing in it’s purest sense.

            Generations of kids, and many who are now adults, grew up with video racing games where a wreck is simply a matter of hitting a reset button and going again, and there is such a loss of connection with reality that wrecks have become accepted and expected–they cost money, they cost time, they can cause serious injury–but ultimately they detract from the actual racing under green flag conditions.

            All-out speed, or running at the very edge of control due to massively more power than the tires can control, does not define what makes an All-Star driver. To me, it’s about seeing which driver can make the most of what he or she has available to use–equal cars plus driver skills is a good format to find out, and that’s why I suggest the format I laid out.

            12 drivers, representing 3 series, in equal cars, for 40 laps. Leave the pit crews out of it–they’ve already done their job to get their driver to that point. Let’s just RACE.

  2. Cinematic genius would be The Treasure Of Sierra Madre. If you are looking to adapt a quote to NASCAR how about “Rules, We don’t got no rules. We don’t need no stinking rules. ” I know it is NASCAR blasphemy but the racing at Charlotte hasn’t been interesting in 20 years. I’m bored senseless with aero anything. Well except maybe sneezes. When it comes to aero I’ve seen sneezes more interesting than post COT NASCAR.

    • How about “Back To The Future?” Something like “Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules!”

      And Brian’s theme from Indiana Jones…”I’m making this up as I go.”

    • Meant to add that Charlotte is one of the worst tracks for an All Star race with the aero-push. NASCAR really needs to have it at tracks where a driver can pass. Otherwise it shows the sport in it’s worst possible light.

  3. If NASCAR continues to put on the All-Star Race, stage it on at a track where the fans care and the teams won’t treat it more like a test session. Run it a track not on the Cup schedule. If the cameras accidentally show the stands Saturday, you’ll see how much (or more accurately how little) Charlotte cares about it. And what is there to care about? One car gets out in front in clean air and it’s on to the next segment. As I mentioned in another column this week, Charlotte may be the least exciting track in NASCAR these days and has been since the repaving about ten years ago.

  4. Want to make the All Star Race interesting… run it on the Dirt Track at Charlotte (or any other dirt track)

  5. I never got the allure of the million-to-win thing. Any driver with a legit chance at the checkers already made more money this season than most of the fans ever will. I don’t begrudge them their wealth but I can’t relate.

  6. Gee, I dunno. How about limiting the field to the drivers who won a race starting with the World 600 and ending with the race prior to All-Star weekend. No pre-race inspection, no post race inspection, other than to say don’t bring an Indy car and try to keep those engines under 500 cubes. Let the rough side drag. Line up for forty laps, drop the green and let em race. Winner gets a million bucks. Everyone else has to park their motorcoach in the infield with the fans in their RVs for the rest of the year.

  7. The All-Star Race is the perfect race to try a midweek prime time race. They should run it on the Wednesday night before the 600 and market it to get more people to come to Charlotte for the whole holiday weekend. Most people (including myself) aren’t going to spend the time or money anymore to spend the better part of two weeks in Charlotte to attend both. Most people are only going to go to the 600.

  8. If the all star race was half as exciting as Lori Laughlin doing bmx freestyle and talking about ass sliding, it would be the best race ever.

  9. Bill, you should apply to NASCAR – your ideas are far more interesting than the snooze fest we see in all 3 series these days.

    We won’t be going to the all-star snooze fest. Maybe I’ll watch it on TV, but that isn’t an absolute any more.

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