Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Both the Sprint Showdown and Sprint All-Star Race featured fantastic racing to the checkers, and there was one driver competing for the win in each contest: Kyle Larson. In both races, Larson held a sizable lead going into the final laps, only to be run down for a pair of battles that featured cars practically glued together in an eight-tires-is-better-than-four run through the final corners.
Larson prevailed in a Showdown finish reminiscent of Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch’s 2003 classic in the spring Darlington race, as the No. 42 car and Chase Elliott went side-by-side through the final lap with Ryan Blaney a couple of car lengths behind, waiting to pounce if either made a mistake. The three youngsters offered a glimpse into a future, which, if Saturday was any indication, is looking pretty bright.
Larson made another charge to the front in the Sprint All-Star Race, looking to become just the third driver to win both the Showdown and All-Star event. This time, it was Joey Logano who ran Larson down and once again, the two waged a battle royale for the win. Had Larson not scrubbed the wall on the backstretch hard enough to knock him off the pace, the finish might have been a repeat of the morning’s classic. All four drivers involved raced aggressively, but without resorting to wrecking each other. Considering that Logano is the oldest of the group at 26, fans could be seeing Larson, Logano, Elliott and Blaney battling for years to come.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Lost in the confusion over the race format (more on that below) was perhaps the most important outcome of the entire weekend: tweaks to the low-downforce rules package were very promising. Clean air was still important — it always will be to some degree — but the leader couldn’t run away and hide the way we’ve seen, especially during night races, for some time. The actual racing was some of the best of the year, with drivers taking things three-wide (and getting away with it) and several aggressive door-to-door battles.
Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch held a compelling fight for position, teams tried differing strategies and there was action from the late morning to night. If the package allows the type of racing we saw Saturday to take place in a points event, then it will have been more than worth a little confusion over rules.
NASCAR has said that the rules taking away skew in the cars will not be used in the Coca-Cola 600, and its reasoning makes sense. Because the race is at the same track as this weekend’s racing, NASCAR can get a decent comparison between the two packages before deciding to move forward with a change, either for later in 2016 or for 2017. The sanctioning body has taken heat for a lot of things, but it’s obvious that they are working to make race cars that can race better. That’s good for the sport. The All-Star Race was a non-points event on one night that means next to nothing in the big scheme of things. An aero package that allows teams to race will have an impact for years to come.
Where… did the latest effort from Goodyear stack up?
Also lost in the shuffle was another effort by Goodyear to create a unicorn: a tire that wears out, rubbers up the track, allows drivers to run in multiple grooves, all without multiple tire failures. Fans and teams have extremely high expectations for the tire manufacturer, and the tire they brought to Charlotte just might be, if not a unicorn, at least a white horse. Tires absolutely mattered (just ask Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch about that) but the night was not marred by tires failing.
The top grove didn’t come in the way drivers hoped, but it’s hard to put the blame on the tires. The track could not have been greener after a torrential downpour washed away any rubber laid down during the Sprint Showdown and Camping World Truck Series race. The Coca-Cola 600 will be a truer test of this incarnation of racing Eagles, but so far, things are looking promising. Rodney Childers, crew chief of the No. 4 car, took to Twitter to express his favorable opinion, and it seems to be one shared by many.
— Rodney Childers (@RodneyChilders4) May 22, 2016
When… did it all go sideways?
What was the deal with the format? The actual format for the race was released several weeks ago, and it was fairly straightforward: 50 laps with a mandatory stop, break with another stop, 50 laps with a stop in the first 35 laps, break where some cars would have to stop and others stay out to decide the whole shebang. There was plenty of time to get familiar with it before the race, so that’s a little bit on anyone who didn’t.
So why did it become a swirl of confusion and doubt? Because one team decided to try and game the system, setting off a chain of events that nobody anticipated. A perfect storm of three distinct events took place. Matt Kenseth and his team stayed out during the first segment when the rest of the field had made their green-flag stops, presumably planning to wait for the last lap to make his stop, which would have allowed him to change four tires on two consecutive two-tire stops.
And it might have worked, except that Jamie McMurray crashed with just a couple of laps left, bringing out a yellow flag. Since only Kenseth hadn’t come to pit road before the caution, several cars were trapped a lap down because the field didn’t cycle through stops completely. With a mandatory pit stop under the caution period after the segment, no drivers could take a wave around. So, had Kenseth pitted even one lap earlier or had McMurray not crashed, the whole thing would not have gone down the way it did.
NASCAR admitted after the race that they had not planned for such a specific set of circumstances and were unprepared to deal with it. There was one last chance to fix it: had Kenseth been brought in to serve his penalty before the rest of the field was allowed to make their mandatory stops during the break, it would have completed the cycle. Unfortunately, Kenseth was brought in with everyone else, and the field not reset prior to pitting.
Because so many cars were then trapped a lap down, what was supposed to set up the final 13-lap segment didn’t. Instead of having eight or nine cars on old tires in front of 10 or so on four fresh ones, only two cars were up front on old rubber. They were easily inhaled by the field before a lap was up. Had there been half the field in that position, there would have been a different complexion altogether.
NASCAR, to their credit, faced the music after the race, admitting that there was not enough planning beforehand and they hadn’t anticipated a team staying out so long as to cause the issues the No. 20 did. They should have expected at least one team to try and play the system, but at the end of the night, it wasn’t the fault of the format, but of teams trying to take advantage of it.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said after the race that a simpler format will work for the sport if the cars continue to be made more competitive.
“I just think they ought to go back to the original formats that they started with that are simple and make the cars race better, you know?
Earnhardt asked. “Gimmicks and all that stuff, trying to trick up the race is going down the wrong path. The way to make the racing exciting is to make the cars exciting.”
And the one takeaway from Saturday is that better racing is becoming reality with the improved rules being put in place.
Why… did Joey Logano win the race?
Really, it goes back to that package again. Logano was able to run down and catch Larson in the final segment and race him for it; Larson got into the wall during the fight for the lead and Logano went on to win. Yes, it’s that simple and that surprising: during a night race on a green track, a car got a big lead in clean air and the second-place car was able to run him down.
That’s not something we’ve been accustomed to seeing in recent years, but it happened twice on Saturday — once during the day (though still on a green and relatively cool race track) and once at night. Clean air has been such a guarantee for the leader in recent years that the ability of another car to not only run the leader down, but to race him was almost a surprise. How many watching the race expected Larson to simply extend his lead once he started opening it up? Probably not many. Put everything else that happened aside, and the winner won because he was able to run down and pass for it. That’s what it should be about, and what’s been missing in the sport. Perhaps the tide is finally turning—signs certainly point that way.
How… come Jimmie Johnson didn’t draw a penalty?
There was some speculation before the race that teams would try and hold back in the second segment in order to be outside the group having to make pit stops and thereby gaining track position for the last 13 laps (incidentally 13 strikes me as strange — why not just 10? Or 15?). NASCAR made a point of saying that the 100 percent rule they created a few years ago would be in effect—essentially reminding teams they’d better give their all during the event.
So why wasn’t Johnson, who dropped like a stone late in the second segment until he was outside the top 11 and then miraculously picked up a second and a half on lap times, penalized under the rule? Kyle Busch also drew a speeding penalty on his stop in that segment which put him at the back of the lead-lap cars and which many speculated was not an accident. Busch’s intent is harder to prove than Johnson’s more blatant attempt, but should NASCAR have taken a closer look at both drivers?
NASCAR representatives failed to comment on the situation in a post-race media briefing, and really, it’s a situation that could go either way. How, exactly, can NASCAR know what’s going on in a team’s collective head? It can be argued that Johnson and Busch were, by employing a strategy that they felt could win them the race, in fact giving their full effort to doing so. It can also be argued that they both shot themselves firmly in the foot because they were sitting ducks lining up in front of 11 cars on four fresh tires and thereby punished themselves thoroughly. They had to have seen in the first part of the race that tires mattered a lot and that with most of the field a lap down, there would be no protection from behind. When all was said and done, the race wasn’t won on sandbagging, so no harm, no foul this time.
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