Finding the right formula for NASCAR’s All-Star Race has been a moving target for the last several years. However, Saturday night’s event has presented NASCAR with a new problem. The All-Star Race felt entirely too ordinary.
To NASCAR’s credit, the sanctioning body did throw a few new twists at its top competitors. The most intriguing variable was the introduction of softer option tires. Each team was given one set that it could use in any of the race’s four stages, with the stipulation that anyone who used them in the final stage would start from the rear of the field. NASCAR also implemented an elimination component based on average finishes across the first three stages, which cut the field to 10 drivers for the final 10-lap dash.
However, the option tires and eliminations were not enough to distinguish Saturday’s contest from any other race which NASCAR sanctions during the year. The All-Star event is always billed as a special occasion, a throwdown between the sport’s finest racers with nothing but money and bragging rights on the line. No matter what format NASCAR used, at least the All-Star Race always felt like a unique, once-a-year treat for the fans. Instead, the 2017 edition came off as a short race in which only half the field participated. It was like the All-Star Race had no identity of its own.
Unfortunately for the fans, NASCAR has sacrificed the originality of its All-Star night on the altar of stage racing. Prior to this season, the All-Star Race was the only Cup Series event to be split into pre-determined stages, more often referred to as segments. Depending on the format, the segments sometimes served functional purposes. Like this year, they set points at which drivers could be eliminated and factored into calculations for average finishes.
In the past, they also served as points between which field inversions could occur. Most of all, segments allowed teams to experiment with pre-planned pit strategies. Having crew chiefs plan their strategies in this way increased the probability of the running order shaking up several times during the event.
All-Star race segments had an important psychological effect as well. Until 2013, when NASCAR created special rules for its Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, the All-Star race was the only major NASCAR event that fans knew would be split up. Having segments made the All-Star race stand alone as a truly unique event. The advance knowledge that the field would get occasionally re-racked demanded a different kind of mindset from competitors, which created a different kind of show for the fans.
This is not to suggest that the All-Star Race has always lived up to its billing. Like any sport that annually showcases its best players, sometimes the event does not live up to the hype. In fact, most of the All-Star Races within the last decade have been pretty forgettable. It bears repeating, Saturday’s race was problematic because it was mundane, not because it was boring in the way that some other races have been this season.
By taking the defining feature of the All-Star race and implementing it in points-paying races, NASCAR has robbed the event of its uniqueness and elevated status. Yes, NASCAR has introduced rules into points races that originated from the All-Star Race before. The best example is probably double-file restarts with only lead lap cars at the front. Yet double-file restarts were never the most important aspect of the All-Star Race’s rules.
Fans did not think about the All-Star event as “the race with double-file restarts,” it was always “the race with segments.” Now, every race has stages. The All-Star Race may still be limited to the sport’s top drivers, but that still translates to 20 drivers in a 40-car field under the current rules. Limiting, perhaps, but it is not all that exclusive.
Even more problematic is that NASCAR has used stages this year as moments for awarding mid-race points. The sanctioning body has touted the importance is performing well in stages, constantly reminding fans that succeeding under the stage format will be crucial to winning the championship. NASCAR is not wrong about that; a look at the points standings shows that winning stage points are important.
That said, the All-Star race remains a non-points event, and that presents NASCAR with a conundrum. The more the sanctioning body promotes stage racing, the more it will promote the significance of stage points.
NASCAR is in the process of trying to create strong associations between stage racing and points in the minds of its fans. The hope is that purists will hold less objections to throwing mid-race cautions for no real reason other than to bunch the field back up if those cautions represent factors that directly influence that championship battle, like awarding points.
The problem with this approach is that there are no points to be awarded in the All-Star Race, and stages only exist to bunch up the pack and provide for different strategies. In the past, this has not been an issue because stages were directly responsible for making the All-Star race original.
Yet now, if the purpose of stages is to award points, they seem out of place in the All-Star race. If stage racing continues to be NASCAR’s standard format, some fans may begin to wonder why the All-Star Race has stages in the first place, rendering them obsolete in the event from which they first came.
Ultimately, NASCAR must do something to recapture the special, one-of-a-kind feel of the All-Star Race. The introduction of option tires was a good idea, but Saturday’s results suggest that Goodyear did not go far enough with differentiating between the two compounds. Clean air was still more valuable than softer tires. As for the eliminations prior to the final stage, it was inconclusive if the threat of being knocked out actually made anyone race harder. Furthermore, none of the eliminated drivers looked like they would have seriously contended for the win anyway.
The best option could be to move the All-Star Race to a different venue. Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Darlington Raceway would all be good choices (at least from a fan’s perspective). Perhaps NASCAR could even run the event at a track that the Cup Series does not currently visit. The sanctioning body could even hold the All-Star Race at Eldora or another dirt track.
If NASCAR would move the All-Star Race, particularly on a rotating basis, the event would become unique again. It would be the one and only chance for fans to see NASCAR’s finest duke it out on a track that might not hold another All-Star Race for years, if ever. With or without stages, fans would be compelled to tune it.
On one level, it would be a shame to see the All-Star Race leave its longtime home at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The event has a long history there, and NASCAR’s meddling with traditional race dates and venues has typically not worked out well. That said, the spread of stage racing has finally put NASCAR’s All-Star Race at a crossroads, and the sanctioning body must choose a path that will lead the event back to its former glory. After all, if the All-Star Race is not a special and unique event, then what is the point of having it at all?
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