Usually, you take what a defeated racer says after the race with a grain of salt. He’s hot, he’s tired, he’s frustrated. Sour grapes abound on his vocal vine.
But when the frustrated words come from a seven-time champion who rarely says a negative word about anyone, let alone the NASCAR hand that feeds him, and when he says what a lot of people have been thinking, it’s harder to shrug off.
Jimmie Johnson has held the reputation for most of his career of being absolutely politically correct. He knows how to toe the company line and does it skillfully. He’s not dishonest, but he is careful with his words. He generally doesn’t want to create controversy. So when he says something that has gotten other drivers fined, you sit up and take notice.
Saturday’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was a shining example of what’s right in NASCAR and an even brighter example of what’s wrong. With no points on the line but elimination of half the field looming, drivers were willing to take chances and race as hard as they could, all race long, for every position. In short, they did what fans wish they would for 500 miles every weekend.
But very little of the hard racing was fruitful at the front, and a lot of it became almost impossible a few laps after a restart. Clean air was king from start to finish. Kyle Larson had the fastest car all night, and he ran away with the first two stages with ease. But once he didn’t restart on the front row, he never got back to the point.
Johnson won the third stage on worn tires because the air mattered more. Kyle Busch made a move reminiscent of days of yore in the final stage, putting his left-side wheels nearly in the grass to make a three-wide move to the front. It should have been one of the All-Star event’s finest moments, but it fell flat because it happened on the restart, and then Busch ran away and hid despite both Larson and Johnson having cars that should have been able to run with his.
The winning move was as exciting as they come, but what happened after was everything that’s wrong in the sport.
Johnson finished third despite holding the lead with 10 laps to go, and when he joined the media for his post-race comments, he wasn’t thrilled with the outcome. But his words didn’t ring of sour grapes. His answers were, as always, carefully thought out, but Johnson also let his feelings about the racing on intermediate tracks like Charlotte be known.
One of the first questions he took was whether it was a forgone conclusion that whoever came away with the lead on the final restart would win. His response wasn’t angry but it also wasn’t a dance around the truth.
“On equal tires, yeah [they were going to win],” Johnson said. “I think the green tire gave a large enough advantage for a short period of time to make something happen.”
Johnson was referring to the softer option tire that teams were allowed to use once during the event. He went on to say that he’d like to see NASCAR work more with tire options in the future, noting that other racing series run different tire compounds successfully.
“We see it work in Formula One. We see it work in IndyCar,” Johnson noted. “I think the garage area, obviously it’s pretty new, but has a favorable opinion of how this went tonight. Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. Really don’t. I mean, it’s better than having a button that makes the wing go down or a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it’s, you know, a good way, a competitive way, not in a gaming sense, just a competitive way to create different pace cars in the field.”
Hopefully there is a future for the different tire compounds in NASCAR, because there’s a possibility that they could do what teams aren’t allowed to do anymore: make some cars faster. Johnson went on to sum up what’s perhaps the biggest issue in the sport in terms of what fans see on race day.
“The one thing I don’t want to overshadow, we’re always looking to make things exciting,” Johnson says. “We all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line. Pit road is so important. The short run when the tires are cool, how the car acts and behaves, two to three laps, it’s where the race is won or lost now. It’s just the environment we’re in. It’s a credit to the garage area being smart, not in a negative sense, but the damn rule book is too thick. There’s too much going on. We’re all running the same speed.”
Races are won and lost in the pits, and while that’s always been the case, it’s more prevalent than ever. Track position is too often not gained on the track, but on pit road. A great pit crew should be an advantage, and it should be a big part of any win and winning season, just not all of it.
Johnson says there are no easy answers or quick fixes.
“I’m like everybody else that is involved in this sport. I have an opinion, but I don’t have the answer,” he said. “I just know when you look at qualifying and you look at the cars on the track, we want parity, we want the manufacturers to all have the same opportunity to go fast. These teams all build the same stuff. We all sit there and run the same speed.
“I mean, it makes sense. We all have access to the same stuff. I don’t have the answer. I guess I say that in trying to not say that it’s the track’s fault or something that’s going on here. Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing. It’s kind of that way. When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do, we can’t pass as easily as anybody, we have to logically look at it and say, Hey, we’re all going the same speed, no wonder we can’t pass.”
Drivers have been fined in the past for saying that cars can’t pass each other, that the cars or the parity without the ability to innovate are the problem. But Johnson said what needed to be said, what many close to the sport have been thinking. He did it thoughtfully and honestly and not in anger, and perhaps that’s what it will take for changes to happen.
What kind of changes are we talking about? Not knee jerk reactions. Anyone who looks at this race and says that the option tire was a bust isn’t making an informed decision. Not only was it one race, but it was a race run at night after practice sessions run on sweltering hot, sunny days. During practice, those option tires made a bigger difference — they bought a lot of time on the track and they fell off quickly — drivers were losing up to five miles per hour in four or five laps. With that speed and need for management, there’s a lot of hope that this could work.
The Open, the last-chance race for the teams and drivers who didn’t earn automatic entry to the All-Star event, was by just about any measure a much better race than the headliner—without using the option tire. So why was a race run by the less experienced, less successful teams on the same tires a better show?
It ran before the sun went down.
While not in the true heat of the day that teams practiced in, the track was hotter and slicker. Cars had less grip and less grip means less aero dependence. Not that aero wasn’t an issue there, too, but overall, the race was much better. So, could marrying daytime races and tire options be, if not a solution, a significant improvement?
Johnson and others did touch on the idea of moving the All-Star event to another venue, and that has merit as well, particularly if it was a venue still close to home for teams, such as Martinsville Speedway, which now has lights if NASCAR decides the event must be after the sun goes down. Bristol isn’t much further, and the All-Star format has always been more appropriate for a short track.
“There’s no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show,” Johnson said.
Tires and daytime races could certainly help with that, but there is one more long-term solution, and the All-Star debate is a microcosm of the whole here. If the racing can’t be improved enough by changing the cars, something NASCAR, to its credit, has tried mightily to do recently, maybe the answer comes in changing the schedule itself. Limiting the number of mile-and-a-half tracks and limiting those races to day affairs would be a viable option, while increasing short tracks and road courses.
There are certainly options here, and it appears that both NASCAR and teams are open to them. A lot of good came out of the event, even if it comes in learning what’s wrong so that it can be made right. Johnson’s comments were refreshing in their honesty and sincerity, and more importantly, they were absolutely on the mark. If positive change comes from a mild night of racing, that night will reverberate far beyond what happened on the track.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.