Though the opening two 50-lap segments of Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race seemed to see more strategy bloopers than on-track racing, Joey Logano still made it all worth while as he passed Kyle Larson with two laps to go to win the non-point event for the first time at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I knew what I was up against after watching the Showdown,” Logano said of Larson.
Indeed, it was the Sprint Showdown – a three-segment race which locked three drivers into the All-Star Race – that et the stage for stock car racing’s All-Star night. The commander of the chaos was Kyle Larson who rubbed Chase Elliott to advance into his first All-Star event.
“I knew we were going to race really hard,” Logano said. “It’s for a million bucks, and I was able to around Lap 6, move up the racetrack and find some speed. Obviously Kyle saw that, he moved up and then I knew I was going to have to make the bottom work somehow.”
As the top 11 drivers were ordered to pit road for the final 13-lap shootout, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, who ran 12th and 13th at the time of the caution, were advanced to the front row.
And as it was built up all week, the green flag flew and the racetrack seemed to double in size, as they spread three and four wide in the opening circuits. Larson drove out to the point before Logano cleared the mess and made his way to the rear of the No. 42.
Unlike past years, once Larson moved up to block Logano’s progress, the No. 22 Ford was able to cut it left, make the pass on the bottom and take the lead following small contact into Turn 1. Logano went on to beat Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski by 1.142 seconds, the first team sweep in All-Star Race history.“Once I had position on him going into the corner, I had to make sure I kept him on the quarterpanel and not to the door,” Logano said. “So I knew he was going to drive in to try to suck me around from the outside and I knew I had to drive in to make sure he didn’t do that, and just good hard racing there at the end. It was a lot of fun. He’s a heck of a racer.”
For the second straight week, it was Larson who came home with the short stick, as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver slammed the wall hard enough to end his race on pit road in 16th spot.
“I just got loose, and Joey caught me, and he did a really good job of side-drafting me,” Larson said. “I tried to hang on his quarter, and I just got really loose as soon as I got down in the corner. We were going so fast I couldn’t correct it and drilled the wall.”
The late-race battle came following a rush of bewilderment as Matt Kenseth was given a one-lap penalty after not making his green-flag pit stop in Segment No. 1. A caution for Jamie McMurray came with four laps to go while a number of drivers were on pit road. Additionally, the yellow trapped a group of drivers one lap down, essentially baffling the teams, drivers, fans… anyone who was watching.
“I was pretty confused right up until it was 13 laps to go,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished third. “And then I knew, well, we’re racing from here to the end, and this is all the normal rules. But everything before that was really out of my — I was out of my element.”
Among the most fired up drivers during the night was – spoiler alert – Tony Stewart, who called it the “most screwed-up All-Star Race ever” as he ended his final All-Star Race in the garage following a hard lap 24 crash in Segment No. 2.
Brad Keselowski, finishing second, was among the minds behind the format and pointed to the late-race pass by teammate Logano as a step in the right direction for the race, and the sport, as a whole.
“There was a next-to-last-lap pass for the lead,” Keselowski said. “There were several passes for the lead. The last four (All-Star) races, there hasn’t been a pass for the lead in the last 20 or 30 laps. I think our fans deserve a better format than that, and they got that today.
“I don’t know how you can get much more compelling racing than what we saw today, so they need to get unconfused and enjoy the racing.”
Despite early troubles, third-place Earnhardt shared Keselowski’s words, saying the same race for the win would not have happen with last year’s aero rules.
“You know, you saw the [Nos.] 22, he could get right up to that 42,” he said. “Man, if we were running the ’14 or ’15 package, the 42 could have went wherever the 22 was going and kept him about 10 car lengths behind him the whole time. He didn’t ever have to worry about it.
“So the fact that the 22 can drive up there right to him and the 42 can’t do anything about it, we’re going down the right direction with all that stuff.”
One of the most interesting battles of the night came in the final segment when Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch bounced, banged and bopped each other for the sixth position. Bayne, who transferred his way into the race by winning Segment No. 1 of the Sprint Showdown, called it good, hard racing.
Completing the top-10 finishers was Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.