I have a face I can not show,
I make the rules up as I go…..
Perhaps the inestimable Ms. Crow isn’t the best cultural reference here. Older fans may remember the Temptations hit “Ball of Confusion” from back in our middle school days… lyrics muddled by bursts of static on the local AM station from the single dash-mounted speaker in Mom’s old Vista Cruiser. Certainly, a “Ball of Confusion” would be one of the kinder ways to describe the farcical goings on NASCAR’s “All-Star” weekend in Charlotte. Others might include a suspicion the sport could screw up a two-wagon funeral in a one-graveyard town.
Once again, Mother Nature stepped in on Friday and Saturday to throw an Ozark into the proceedings. There’s nothing much NASCAR or any of us can do about the weather. Forget that old saw about the best laid plans of mice and men. Mice in general don’t do a lot of planning which is why they tend to get things done. Some folks take too much time planning and in the end accomplish very little at all.
The “last chance” race for the All-Star race finally got underway late Saturday morning. The first heat featured a spirited battle between Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, two rookies with bright futures ahead of them. Elliott seemingly had the edge when a late-segment crash drew a caution and resulted in a one-lap shootout for the win. In NASCAR’s judgment, Blaney jumped that final restart and drew the black flag. Trevor Bayne had helped push Blaney on that restart and using that momentum made a daring three-wide pass to win the segment.
It seems NASCAR is monitoring the restarts with extra vigilance of late. That’s probably in response to some drivers’ complaints second-place drivers were usurping or negating the leader’s advantage. There’s been a rash of penalties lately as a result, either because NASCAR is watching more carefully or because the racing has become competitive enough that drivers are on edge looking for every inch of an advantage they can get on restarts.
But in a case like Saturday, black-flagging the perpetrator doesn’t make matters right. Blaney may have drawn the black flag but his alleged infraction also gave Bayne an advantage that might have cost Elliott a win. Because of all the confusion and those dreaded “judgment” calls NASCAR is making I’d prefer they go back to the way such infractions were once handled. If the flagman or other race official determines the restart was botched or highly questionable, wave off that restart. Sort the drivers all back out. Remind the leader he must accelerate cleanly within the restart box and warn the driver beside him (or her, in the unlikely scenario Danica Patrick ever leads a race) the leader is in control. If the driver in question makes a second mistake, botching another restart that’s when they should get black-flagged.
Anyways, segment two of this Showdown was a much less engaging affair with Greg Biffle wresting the lead from Austin Dillon, waving a jaunty goodbye and driving to an uncontested win. Things heated up nicely in the last ten-lap segment with Kyle Larson and Elliott staging an epic battle coming out of turn four to the checkers, tires smoking and fenders clanging just the way God and Junior Johnson intended stock car racing to be. Larson prevailed and though it wasn’t a points-paying victory it had to be heartening for him to finally take a checkered flag after finishing second so many times. It was a shame Elliott’s day also seemed over despite almost winning two segments, but Deus-ex-machina, he got into the All-Star Race on the fan vote. Elliott, in fact, got more fan votes than Danica Patrick who also used the loophole to enter Saturday night’s big show. Perhaps the old Elliott Machine run by his father’s fan club that managed to vote early and often enough to get Bill all those Most Popular Driver awards is still in place. Or perhaps, despite the fact Patrick remains wildly popular, folks are wising up to the fact she’s a one-trick pony. Despite having that extra X chromosome, Patrick still hasn’t managed a top-5 finish in 130 Cup starts, a record that would make most competitors X-drivers.
The truck race postponed from Friday night finally ran after that last chance race and was most notable in two regards: Matt Crafton won and for the first time in his career managed back-to-back victories. Perhaps more surprisingly, Kyle Busch didn’t win. A pit road penalty sent him back midpack with not enough laps left for even Busch to bull his way back toward the lead.
So at first it seemed so far, so good as the track sat fallow for the rest of the afternoon. It lie in wait for the new format All-Star Race billed as the greatest thing since sliced bread, pop-top beer, and Ford-cramming Cobra Jet engines between the fenders of Mustangs.
Unfortunately, the track didn’t remain dry in the interim, a flood which sparked early confusion. Rescheduled All-Star practice was shortened by weather. In their Solomonic wisdom, NASCAR decided that the shortened session wasn’t long enough so they’d line up the field based on owner points rather than practice speeds. Some crew chiefs and team owners apparently didn’t get that memo; the decision stands in marked contrast to several other races recently where rain shortened some practice sessions and canceled others. At those events, some teams took to the track in first practice early in the session in qualifying trim, gambling bad weather was on its way while other teams who believed the rain would hold off went out to practice in slower race setups. Of course, there’s no rule that states how long a practice session has to last for it to be official. The entire scheduled time? OK, maybe five minutes less than the entire allotted time? Half the scheduled time? When you leave it up to race officials to make a judgment call you’re only going to breed confusion.
(Editor’s note: The All-Star Race field was set on owners’ points due to all drivers in the event not having the chance to practice, according to the NASCAR rule book.)
Friday’s bad weather also caused a logistical problem. Fans who had tickets to the Truck race and Sprint Cup’s “Last Chance” event were told Saturday at 3:00, after the conclusion of both, “Hey, you can’t sit here in the rain anymore. Buy a ticket for the Big Show tonight or go home.” In light of the inconvenience those fans suffered owing to the rain postponements Friday, I think it would have been a nice gesture to allow them to stay and find an unoccupied seat for Saturday night’s race if they chose to. It appeared there were plenty of empty seats available anyway to those who were willing to sit out the rain another few hours.
Rain did delay the All-Star Race, though not as late as radar once indicated it might have. In another curious call, race officials had the mobile stage towed into place for driver’s intros though that would delay the track crews finishing drying that section of the track. I suppose there are some people out there who really look forward to driver introductions. I’m just not one of them. I find them insufferable and a waste of time. As I see it, top priority should be given to drying the track so the race can start as close as possible to the scheduled time. Races that end within minutes of midnight tend to shed fans at home watching on TV like a retriever dog sheds fleas leaping into a pond.
(Editor’s note: The broadcast of driver introductions was sponsored and a contractual obligation.)
To review, briefly and probably leaving out a lot of salient points, this year’s All-Star race was slated to run in three parts; two 50-lap segments, followed by a 13-lap dash for the cash. During the first segment, all drivers were required to make at least one green-flag pit stop for at least two tires. The same rules were in effect for the second segment, only the pits would close at lap 85. After the second segment the top 9, 10 or 11 drivers would be forced to pit for four tires then start behind other cars who were not allowed to pit. The hope was that would lead to the top 10 (or 9 or 11) cars starting at the rear with fresh rubber having to run wide open to get to the front within 13 laps. A note to whomever planned this mess: The longer it takes to explain a concept, be it auto racing, marketing or business, the less likely it is to succeed. OK, guys, we’re going to run a foot race from here to the barn. Only you have to jump over the fence along the way, then shinny underneath it….and when you get to the asphalt in the driveway, you have to hop on one foot the rest of the way and recite the alphabet backwards in Greek…
Things took a turn for the worse during the first segment once Jamie McMurray spun out on lap 46. While most of the field had chosen to pit, some stalwarts had waited until later in the segment to do so. Matt Kenseth’s strategy was to pit at the last possible moment, but when that caution flew it threw a wrench in the No. 20 team’s plans. Pit road was closed due to the caution, and even if Kenseth had gone ahead and pitted it wouldn’t have counted as the mandatory green flag stop. After considerable head scratching NASCAR decided that Kenseth would be penalized a lap. Penalized for what? For waiting until the last possible lap to pit?
(Editor’s note: NASCAR explained the penalty was for not completing a green-flag pit stop during the segment by rule.)
How was Kenseth (or his team, for that matter) to know that that caution was going to fly? What is this sport we’re covering, stock car racing or musical chairs? In retrospect, the correct solution would have been not to have caution laps count during any of the three segments, not just the last one. That would have allowed Kenseth to pit and return to the track in whatever position he managed to earn. Presumably, that would also have allowed most if not all the drivers Kenseth had a lap down at the time to get their lap back. Kenseth’s crew chief said that he had been told in such an occurrence, the red flag would be displayed which would have allowed Kenseth to pit once the green flag was back out. Hmm… apparently not. To paraphrase Strother Martin, what we had there was a failure to communicate. And you can’t fault Kenseth’s team for trying a contrarian strategy. Even if they’d planned to pit on lap 40, the race could have gone under caution for the rest of the segment for a big incident. In fact, as NASCAR tries to help their TV network partners out, we’ve all seen cautions drag on for 10 laps on intermediate tracks just to remove a hot dog wrapper from the racing surface.
But as it was, NASCAR had painted themselves into a corner. Holding Kenseth that lap wasn’t going to get the lapped drivers back on the lead lap as Kenseth was no longer the leader.
Under normal race rules, those drivers who were technically on the tail end of the lead lap would have been given a wave around if they didn’t pit. But it was mandatory that all teams and drivers pit. The scoring ticker alternatively showed some drivers as either on the lead lap or a lap down. Fans watching the race didn’t have a clue what was going on and the FOX broadcast team seemed at first befuddled then bemused by the screw-up, failing to offer anything helpful by way of explanation. Things got even more bizarre when those “tail end of the lead lap” cars were allowed to pit with the leaders, a move contrary to anything I’d ever seen done at a NASCAR race in the 50 some years I’ve been following the sport.
How crazy did it all get? Between segment one and segment two, NASCAR bought the field down pit road to check that all five lug nuts on all four corners of each car were tight. It was a move Matt Kenseth opined was like the NFL taking a timeout to make sure all the players’ shoelaces were tied.
Segment two was interrupted by a caution flag for water seeping up through the track sixteen laps into the run. Once the race went green again, Chase Elliott decided to ensure that he didn’t suffer the same penalty Kenseth had by pitting early. With the cars still tightly bunched up after that restart, that move triggered a wreck that involved Elliott, Tony Stewart, Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick while finally putting Kenseth out of his misery for the evening. NASCAR no longer publishes race purses, so I don’t know what Stewart earned for finishing dead last in the event but hopefully it was at least $35,000. Stewart was recently fined that amount for some comments he made about lug nuts, and on Saturday night, he once again denigrated NASCAR officialdom claiming he was baffled by the calls they made and expressing elation it was his last All-Star race. Apparently, Chase Elliott was shaken up a bit by the incident. When the rookie returned to the track after pitting, he pulled his best Juan Pablo Montoya and damn near ran into a jet dryer.
Toward the end of the second segment, Jimmie Johnson clearly threw out the anchor and wound his way back to 12th place. Kyle Busch, who had been penalized for a pit road violation, was also clearly trying not to make up ground, radioing his team that he was just trying to stay in front of the leader to remain on the lead lap. When a race format causes drivers to attempt to lose or maintain positions, not go forward, there’s something wrong happening. Some other drivers cited the 100 percent rule but that’s just another rule that NASCAR made up with no idea how they’d ever be able to enforce it. Who can say if a particular car had begun handling so badly its driver had no recourse but to slow way down to keep it out of the wall?
The premise for the final segment was the fastest drivers and cars would be inverted; they would then pit for fresh tires to give them an advantage on the cars that restarted ahead of them on older tires. But there were supposed to be (ideally as planned) about 10 cars ahead of the inverted drivers. As it turned out, three cars were already out of the race with crash damage. And NASCAR couldn’t make the inverted drivers restart behind cars a lap or more down, could they? So Johnson’s strategy backfired. He and Kyle Busch restarted with Kyle Larson on four fresh tires (the first off pit road after the mandatory stop and subsequent lug nut check) directly behind them. Larson quickly went to the lead while Johnson and Busch dropped like rocket-propelled rocks backwards through the field. Meanwhile, Joey Logano (who had been all but invisible much of the evening) gained momentum to the point he caught Larson and battled him up front. Larson’s Chevy, while trying to hang onto the lead got out from underneath him and he put it into the wall.
Logano made the decisive pass with two laps to go, so some folks will say Saturday’s race was a great success. Things panned out exactly as planned with a late-race pass determining the winner after four years of having whichever driver restarted the final segment first leading the rest of the race to the checkers.
That’s all well and good, I suppose but after the race, most fans and drivers seemed more befuddled than bedazzled. “Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t hit the theaters until Thursday, but I doubt Alice’s bizarre misadventures will have anything on Logano’s win Saturday. (Though I can’t be sure. Guess I’ll have to go ask Alice, I think she’ll know.) I did my damnedest to figure out what was going on during the race so I could write with some degree of coherence on the event, but I haven’t been so confused since I got caught on an escalator after a Dead show in Philly. Thing is there weren’t any escalators at the Spectrum, just steps. Some people envisioned world peace. I envisioned escalators. Even this morning I tried explaining the race to my favorite golden retriever, Doc. Doc, raised his ears, cocked his head and finally let a low growl to warn me against all precedent he was going to bite me if I kept trying to talk.
Againm some drivers tried to put some happy spin on the farce. Logano was obviously pleased as punch he had won. Brad Keselowski finished second and touted that late-race pass as evidence the race was a success. Of course, since Keselowski’s fingerprints were all over the jelly-stained blueprints for this new format he had to sound positive. What other choice did he have? Team Penske did have a million good reasons to love the new format; they were deposited squarely in Logano’s bank account Monday.
I am sure given the time they now have NASCAR, with some more “help” from the drivers’ council can come up with a format even more ridiculous than Saturday night’s race. Given their track record, I’m certain they can and that there’d be a whole new set of unintended consequences they hadn’t thought through with the new format as well. But why bother? The All-Star race has outlived its usefulness and degenerated into just another roadside attraction. I think all parties concerned would be better served with another weekend off. If, in fact NASCAR’s new title sponsor (and they’re being awfully coy about who it might be) wishes to continue the All-Star tradition maybe it’s time to really change things up. Hmm. How about having the drivers run a late model race on the Dirt Track at Charlotte, three 20-lap qualifiers and a 50-lap main event with no mandatory pit stops? Oh, but after the race, the teams have to load their race cars onto an open trailer being towed by a regular cab dually pickup at least 30 years old and have the drivers and a fan assigned to each of them haul ass up to downtown Richmond with a required oil change in a fast food parking lot before the Virginia border (NASCAR inspectors will check oil level) for a mandatory lug nut check with the first driver to arrive with 20 tight lug nuts wearing a sombrero bought along the trip paying with pocket change not currency earning his ridealong fan a million dollars too.
Like I said… simpler is better.