NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will New Format Truly Change All-Star Race?

What should we make of this new All-Star Race format?

It is All-Star Race weekend in Charlotte, and much like the night sky, Saturday night will have plenty of stars on the racetrack in an event going through yet another format change in order to further entice conflict toward the checkered flag – as if $1 million wasn’t enough.

This time, the All-Star Race will see its usual segment-style race before setting up a 13-lap shootout to the end. The difference here is the mandatory pit stop for the top nine, 10 or 11 drivers, giving the drivers behind the lead spots before the final dash.

This is something I never thought about when it came to spicing up a non-point event. Ken Squier had a great short track format that included awarding points for drivers at the end of each segment before reverting the field for the next. I can just smell the teams tinkering with a format like that already.

The same can be said about this year’s format, as it wouldn’t be NASCAR if teams didn’t screw and stretch the rules any place they can. It is a good idea to make the official number unknown, whether it be nine, 10 or 11; however, we could be in for a very odd race for a seven-digit paycheck.

Either way, it will be something different, and that is one aspect of the All-Star Race I like. The fastest drivers with the fastest tires will be put in the middle of the field, while the slower ones will have slower tires and the clear air. Which one will prevail?

I enjoy a good build-up to an entertaining end, but what about the rest of the race? Should people just tune in for that final segment since that’s the only significant change? They shall not, as an adjustment to the rules package will be put on debut that will reduce downforce and side force on the racecars.

Though I don’t know what a truck trailing arm or crossmember assembly are – or even what ‘skew’ is exactly – I do know what lower downforce can lead to. That is why I have a smile on my face while I write this, as the past two night races this year have been the worst of the best so far in 2016. With teams already catching up with the changes, it’s a perfect time, place and event to put a tweaked change on the table.

We are guaranteed to have things to talk about come Monday morning. Aero, tires and the drive in the driver will be put on the line unlike any other year I can remember.

How will Austin Theriault perform Friday at Charlotte?

Austin Theriault continues to prove there is nothing like a good comeback story to get people talking.

His is one of the best stories the Camping World Truck Series has seen in a while. The young driver suffered a compression fracture at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October, battled back to make the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway the next month and then returned to the front of the pack at Daytona International Speedway in February, leading 31 laps.

When I spoke to him at length last November at Homestead, the 22-year-old was clearly moved from a crash that almost ended his racing career. I certainly couldn’t picture myself wanting to get back into something that almost killed me; that’s where that whole competitive-driver aspect kicks in, and is the reason why Theriault’s strapping back in this weekend at Charlotte.

Driving the No. 2 Ford for Brad Keselowski Racing, Theriault will make his first Truck Series start at the speedway. The race will mark another testing point for his future in the sport, as opportunities in winning equipment won’t come to the fragile.

With limited 1.5-mile experience overall, there are only a few races to look back on for Theriault — one of which is Texas Motor Speedway, where last June he finished fifth. Two top-15 finishes at Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway also make him a solid bet for a decent finish.

Young but smart, Theriault will have that precious perspective once he gets back on the racetrack. That can be priceless.

Will Six-Time become Mr. Five-Time of the All-Star Race?

Though there’s no points involved, I’ve always put the All-Star Race on my list of the top six biggest races of the season. It’s unique, fun and it kicks off the sport’s time back home in Charlotte, N.C.

The 1.5-mile track has all but been perfect for Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. His record-leading four All-Star wins in 2003, ’04, ’12 and ’13 join his four Coca-Cola 600 trophies and three fall race victories. There was a time where Johnson never seemed to lose here; the All-Star Race was just another opportunity to give back to his No. 48 team with an extra $1 million in the bank.

2016 Kansas I CUP Jimmie Johnson II Nigel Kinrade NKP
A week removed from another shifting issue for HMS, Johnson heads to Charlotte. [Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP]
However, since the turn of the decade, the tide has changed a bit. When he won the All-Star Race in 2012, that snapped three straight years outside the top 10 in the race. And 2014’s race was the first time since 2007 he didn’t lead a lap at all.

Throwing his track stats out the window, the same can be said about his week-to-week performance compared to years gone by. The 2015 Sprint Cup season was the first time Johnson led less than 1,000 laps since 2006. Coincidence or not, Kevin Harvick has done the opposite, cranking about thousands of laps out front since his switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. In return, Johnson may have caught The Closer’s bug, as he continues to somehow still win more races than driver No. 4.

But to predict whether or not Johnson will win on Saturday night is truly a toss-up. His consistency in the last six races has resembled a heart monitor, finishing top 5 one week and outside the top 25 the next.

Again, he has been able to pounce out of nowhere and steal a victory unlike ever before in his racing career, a skill like that could come in handy in that final 13-lap dash, if Johnson can stay out of trouble beforehand.

Will safety be at the forefront again at Indianapolis?

This time last year, the Verizon IndyCar Series was going through one of the scariest times in its history, as multiple cars were losing control and crashing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Not only were they crashing, they were grabbing air and tumbling. In open-wheel racecars, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy can strike. Thankfully, James Hinchcliffe recovered from his near-fatal hit one year ago, while Helio Castroneves, Pippa Mann, Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were all healthy enough to still make the 99th running in 2015.

Unlike these situations, however, Pocono Raceway last August saw Justin Wilson lose his life in a freak accident with race leader Sage Karam. As we come into the first oval race since, there is naturally a level of nerves any time these cars hit the 230 mph mark in speed.

Additional safety innovations include rear flaps that will create 500 pounds of additional downforce to keep the cars on the ground, similar to NASCAR’s roof flaps. Domed skids and additional tethers give the impression that IndyCar is striving for a safer checkered flag.

The hard work was showcased Wednesday when rookie Spencer Pigot crashed left side-first into the turn 2 wall. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda stayed planted on the ground before the 22-year-old climbed from the car unhurt. In fact, as Pigot later tweeted, the crash wasn’t even caused by a part failure or anything with concern as he “ran something over that cut both ride-side tires entering turn 1.”

This was a good sign in terms of safety for the 100th Indy 500. With qualifying up next this weekend, I hope the only concern is who will be on pole instead of how the car will react when turned backward.

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