Did You Notice? … NASCAR is throwing an All-Star Race Hail Mary?
A litany of changes announced Tuesday (April 11) for the sport’s main exhibition are designed to return it to a state of former glory. Twenty-five years after “One Hot Night,” the infamous 1992 race in which Dale Earnhardt and a victorious Davey Allison spun in the final lap, the rules have been tweaked as a throwback to that event.
The All-Star Race is now 70 laps, split into four stages of 20, 20, 20 and 10. The final 10-lap segment, run for $1 million, will see the field cut down from 20-plus to just 10 cars.
Elimination is a trick that’s been used before. It’s how the field gets lined up for the final sprint that’s so different. Each of the 20-lap stage winners, up to three, will automatically qualify for the 10-lap final as long as they finish on the lead lap. The other seven spots will be filled by best average finish over the course of those three segments.
Once determined, the field will then be given a chance to pit, jumbling up the final starting order. But perhaps the most important change is the ability on that stop to take on a set of option tires. Each team will be given one special set of a Goodyear compound to use at any point during the race. This tire, tested for more grip, is believed to save anywhere from three-tenths to five-tenths of a second per lap.
Teams who save the option tire for the final segment do so at their own risk. Those tires with the special green lettering force you to start behind those running normal tires before the final 10 laps get underway.
Sound confusing? It certainly is. But the goal for NASCAR is simple: make the All-Star Race competitive again.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, once the crown jewel of intermediates, is now simply the home track teams race on because they have to. If not for its location, Bruton Smith may have considered Charlotte, not New Hampshire Motor Speedway, for contraction when Las Vegas Motor Speedway got awarded a second date in 2018. Yes, the racing has been that bad. (See: Coca-Cola 600, Martin Truex Jr., 2016).
How do you fix it? NASCAR has thrown all it can at Charlotte in recent years to stem the tide of aero push, a failed levigation project and modern technology that ruined this 1.5-mile oval. Well, guess what? Have you checked your kitchen sink lately? NASCAR just ripped it out and threw it straight at CMS.
Short of turning Charlotte into a road course, these changes are the last best effort to fix it. On paper, I don’t know how you could ask for more from an All-Star Race. You’ve got short segments creating a sense of urgency, and winners earn auto bids for the final 10 laps. With average finish making or breaking the 10 cars running for $1 million, all drivers must fight for every position. Add in new tires from Goodyear, multiple compounds that should be a part of every race weekend in 2018, and you’ve got pit strategy blended in perfectly.
There’s only one problem that leaves me concerned for Charlotte: Nowhere in here has NASCAR addressed the biggest issue we’ve seen on intermediates all year, which is clean air. The leader has been able to run and hide even at the best 1.5-milers; Atlanta Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and a repaved Texas Motor Speedway all saw a quick end to side-by-side racing up front after a restart. First place means an advantage that all too often has you jetting into the sunset. Sure, the rest of the field battles vigorously for second, third, and fourth, but that’s often not even shown to the viewers.
Such a runaway has happened in the All-Star Race before; heck, we saw it just last week. Ryan Blaney led 148 laps at Texas and dominated until circumstances left him back in traffic. Once there, Blaney was stuck, even though there was a sense of urgency. New tires would have helped, but only so much. No, he proved helpless to reclaim the lead because the advantage in clean air made it virtually impossible for a driver running mid-pack to keep up.
The good news is the rules of this All-Star Race literally could not be better on paper. Other than turning this race into a virtual MarioKart game or bringing former legends out of retirement (Tony Stewart? Jeff Gordon?), I don’t know what else you could add to them.
But if one driver gets hooked up and gets out in clean air, three restarts over the course of 70 laps may not change the final outcome, even with option tires.
Let’s hope I’m wrong. But even if I’m right? There will be no better example for NASCAR to stop, take a deep breath and do whatever it takes to reduce the aerodynamics at play, allowing the leader to scoot away.
Did You Notice? … Jimmie Johnson was dead and buried before winning at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend?
It’s true Johnson has had an awful start, earning one top-10 finish in his first six races before Sunday’s surprise victory. But Johnson has been through those types of droughts before. Shame on us for getting caught up in the hype we often see during the first two months of a season. Just because a slump happens early doesn’t mean it’s going to continue later.
We see this phenomenon in baseball all the time. Right now, fans are panicking over teams that might have a 1-5 or 2-4 start. But in the long run of 162 games, that’ll happen a time or two on your way to a record of 90 wins or better.[poll id=”6″]
Consider these past efforts of Johnson in championship seasons and compare them to his 2017 early slump.
2017: 6 races, 1 top 10, 28 laps led, 18.2 average finish
August-September 2006 (Michigan-Dover): 6 races, 1 top 10, 4 laps led, 18.2 average finish
July-August 2010 (Daytona-Bristol): 7 races, 1 top 10, 379 laps led, 23.3 average finish
August-September 2013 (Michigan-Richmond): 4 races, 0 top 10s, 3 laps led, 28.0 average finish
These are just three quick examples of championship years for the No. 48 team. In each case, it went through a bit of a rut but recovered beautifully in time for Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Johnson story is a result of modern media doing what it does. With this 24/7 news cycle and a constant need for conversation, it’s easy to say Johnson is struggling. But, in reality, it’s a small sample size we’re dealing with here.
There’s also an argument to be made about how the regular season diminishes these things. Under the old format, before there were playoffs, such slumps would be a bigger problem. That’s why old-school fans valued that championship so much; you couldn’t have a dip in performance and recover in time to win.
But playoffs are designed to allow for slippage. If you’re the sixth seed in the NFL, 16th seed in NASCAR or the eighth seed in the NBA, chances are you’ve had a slump in your season. Johnson’s team knows that, rides the waves and makes sure it’s at its best when it really matters. The No. 48 team deserves credit.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- I couldn’t help but be compelled by the depositions on both sides in the Kevin Ward-Tony Stewart civil case. What sticks in my mind is the testimony of Stewart’s ex-girlfriend Jessica Zemken-Friesen. In that fateful race, she stated Stewart turned toward Ward and would have missed him had he followed the line of other cars. To be a part of this deposition is painful enough, but I can only imagine what’s going through Stewart’s head to read a deposition from a former lover that he was partially at fault, in her opinion, for killing another man. That’s tragic in its own right. The case, seeking unspecified monetary damages for the Ward family, has mediation scheduled for next week.
- NASCAR’s 2.5 Nielsen overnight rating for Texas was excused because “it was running in direct competition to the Masters.” But don’t you remember a time when the other sporting event (except maybe the NFL) didn’t matter? No one was running around in 2005 worried about whether the NCAA Tournament, the Masters or even the NHL/NBA Playoffs would cripple viewership. That’s ignoring the problem. The sport would be better suited pushing its digital numbers, millennial connections (which have stabilized in 2016-17) or other positives. Excuses ring hollow.
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