Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Joseph Wolkin has you covered with this 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?
Denny Hamlin ended the evening in Victory Lane, with Kevin Harvick making a hard charge during the final 10-lap segment, but the real story belongs to Kyle Busch. With a very impressive return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Busch finished sixth on Saturday evening during the Sprint All-Star Race. Hamlin, Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch swapped the lead multiple times throughout the race, but the No. 11 team was able to come out in front after entering pit road sixth when the field was set by average finish for the first four segments.
His brother, Kyle, did not have luck on his side, though, as he fell a lap down following an unscheduled green-flag pit stop. He had a car that was likely capable of finishing in the top five, yet he got caught in the back of the pack as he adjusted to his first laps with the new engine and aero package in race conditions. For Hamlin, he proved that clean air is once again the way to prevail at an intermediate track.
What… made this All-Star Race different from the others?
The lack of excitement in this year’s edition of the All-Star Race proved that multiple changes need to be made next season. Besides an aero package that enables cars to go nearly wide-open in the corners, the tapered spacer gives them more speed, which caused large gaps in the field. After multiple passes for the lead in the first two segments, things slowed down in the third and fourth segment. Clean air had a larger effect in the race than it has in a while, and it showed as Hamlin pulled out by nearly a second on Harvick after an intense battle for about four laps. Hamlin’s victory also marks the first time a Toyota has won the All-Star Race since it entered the Sprint Cup Series in 2007.
Jeff Gordon’s final All-Star Race started off as an emotional one – being greeted by former crew chief Ray Evernham, along with his family. Well, it paid off for the four-time champion as he finished fourth, which marks his first top 10 in the All-Star Race since 2006. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson struggled throughout the event, which is rare for him at Charlotte.
Where… did the polesitter, Sprint Showdown transfers and the fan vote winner wind up?
Hamlin sat on the pole after an amazing effort by his pit crew. He led the first 14 laps of the opening 25-lap segment, and evidently led 26 on the night. With a strong average finish, he had a solid position entering the final round of pit stops, and his pit crew did the rest of the work for him. Keselowski, who led a race-high 49 laps, was second coming off pit road, but received a speeding penalty. Hamlin had a solid restart, and was able to hold off Harvick, who dropped several tenths of a second behind him in the closing laps.
Clint Bowyer, who won the Sprint Showdown on Friday, struggled during the All-Star Race. After earning a solid qualifying position inside the top five, he dropped rather rapidly, and finished the day in 12th. He had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel, which dropped him one lap down, but he was able to fight back, which is the lone bright spot of his day.
Greg Biffle, who made the All-Star Race after leading the Sprint Showdown following the first segment, finished 13th. He shockingly started second, and was running strong inside the top five until the end of the first segment, when he hit the wall coming off turn 4. Biffle’s car was extremely loose early on, and he smacked the wall once again as the first segment ended. He ran toward the rear of the field for the majority of the race, but was able to show Roush Fenway Racing has some speed.
Danica Patrick unsurprisingly won the Sprint Fan Vote. She was the highest qualifier out of the Stewart-Haas Racing camp, but had to start at the rear of the field due to an engine change. Patrick finished last in the field after a burnt left-front tire hub, which sent her to the garage for 32 laps.
When… did it all go sideways?
The race was solid until the start of the third segment. At first, Hamlin and Kasey Kahne had a solid battle for the lead. However, Keselowski took the lead on lap 34, and that started an abysmal run to the finish. There was very little passing in the final segments of the race, and whoever held the lead coming out of pit road ended up leading the remainder of the segment.
Though it was a very clean 110 laps, thankfully, just about everyone in the field experienced loose conditions. Joey Logano was extremely loose at one point, and dropped outside the top 15 after nearly hitting the wall. The same happened to Johnson and Biffle. The lack of downforce is still not enough to fix the racing on intermediate tracks, and putting the 2016 package on the track would have been a much better decision than using the current one.
Why… did Hamlin win the race?
Hamlin ran up front throughout the day. His No. 11 team has been up and down this year, with six finishes of 22nd or worse. But Hamlin’s car was dialed-in on Saturday evening, and he was determined to get into Victory Lane, especially with JD Gibbs at the track for the first time in a while.
His pit crew was stout on the night, and they are the reason that he pulled into Victory Lane. He had a solid car in traffic, but dropped outside of the top five in the middle of the race. Getting out front on the final pit stop was all he needed to seal the win.
How… could the All-Star Race be better?
NASCAR has changed just about everything besides the kitchen sink over the past few seasons, except for the All-Star Race. Now, after multiple seasons of lackluster races, it is time for a change. Charlotte is a wonderful track, and provides great racing on long runs, but it is not the place you want to have a 10-lap dash to the finish. The sport keeps attempting to be like other sports, such as the playoff format, yet it refuses to move the All-Star Race to a different venue each season.
Tradition is more important in NASCAR than any other sport for various reasons, including stubborn fans and track owners not wanting to budge, thinking that they can sell a race based on that “tradition.” However, things are different now, and people do not want to see 50 laps of solid racing, then 60 markers of subpar racing.
If the sanctioning body does not want to leave Charlotte since it enables team members and families to go to the race, then it can at least try a different package. NASCAR was originally going to enable teams to run the 2016 aero/engine package for this year’s All-Star Race, but it never happened. It would have made things very unpredictable, along with providing teams a different look at what could occur on intermediate tracks for next year. Eliminations would also create a sense of urgency, like it did years ago, and that would provide much better racing for the $1 million prize.
Along with changes to the race itself, the Sprint Showdown needs to be moved back to Saturday evening. Adding qualifying just prior to the All-Star Race was a smart move, but putting the Showdown in the early afternoon on Saturday would give fans a full day of racing. Putting it in front of the Camping World Truck Series race gives less air time for small teams, and makes the race rather illegitimate for just two drivers to advance to the All-Star Race.