Ryan: Why the outcry over the All-Star Race location now? Many reasons for a tipping point

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The debate over moving the All-Star Race reached critical mass this past weekend.

At least a dozen drivers, media pundits and broadcast analysts (including NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in this compelling column) called on NASCAR to consider leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The points are well-taken: The 1.5-mile track’s smooth surface (high grip plus high speeds = slot cars) magnifies aero-sensitivity at the expense of slam-bang action.

But why did the tidal wave of dissent finally crest this year?

It’s been no secret for many seasons that Charlotte hardly was conducive to holding this event.

Though Kyle Busch took the lead with a nifty pass to begin the final segment, he still led the last 10 laps – the fourth time in five years the winner has managed that feat. Aside from last year’s pass of Kyle Larson by Joey Logano with two laps remaining, the last All-Star Race whose outcome was in doubt after the green flag of the final segment was when Tony Stewart beat Matt Kenseth in 2009.

In 12 All-Star Races since Charlotte was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Perhaps the cumulative dearth of action from the past decade was why this year became a tipping point. But there also might have been these factors that had many speaking out:

Stage racing: In case you missed it, NASCAR began splitting all of its races into segments in 2017. The enhancements have been a tremendous addition this season (stay tuned for a NASCAR on NBC podcast with Burton this week discussing their impact and origins), but they inadvertently have created another layer of redundancy for the All-Star Race.

It’s analogous to the addition of double-file restarts to points races nearly seven years ago. When two of the main features of the All-Star Race becoming part and parcel to the everyday routine, it’s worth asking if the approach and format of the event still makes sense.

–Swiftness of change: To its credit, NASCAR has become much more nimble over the past couple of years about 1) trying new ideas; and 2) quickly implementing them. This initially was illustrated in a fast and total reversal of its rules direction (resulting in lower downforce) midway through the 2015 season, and it’s been evident in many ways since then.

And those that don’t work also aren’t kept (good riddance to heat races in Xfinity and the caution clock in trucks), so there seems less tolerance for anything perceived as the slightest drain on NASCAR momentum (undoubtedly, much of this is driven by social media, but that’s a topic for another day). When something doesn’t meet the standards of quality, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte certainly qualifies in recent years, the drumbeat for revamping begins almost immediately.

Tire problem: There’s no getting around the fact that the option tires didn’t deliver as many had hoped. With the race predicated on a primary selling point that didn’t deliver, it naturally stoked a loud reaction.

This also held true with last year’s wacky and hastily assembled format, which actually delivered a decent race. But the much-ballyhooed rules were so impenetrable, they naturally became the focus.

–All-Star existentialism: NASCAR can find solace in having good company in seeking relevance for its all-star extravaganza. The NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have wrestled with the same philosophical conundrums of events whose purposes have become diluted over the years.

Here is the question that needs to be answered well in advance of next year: What’s the main objective of a NASCAR All-Star Race?

Should it be nonstop action? Showcasing the drivers’ personalities? Highlighting their skills? Saluting the heritage of stock-car racing?

You can say all of the above, but this is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a singular focus.

Answering this question would go a long way toward solving one of NASCAR’s greatest identity crises. In the meantime, here is one certainty about the All-Star Race.

When the 2018 schedule is released Tuesday, expect Charlotte Motor Speedway to remain listed as the host.

For now.

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One consensus positive opinion about this year’s event: Ending it well before everyone’s bedtime on a Saturday night was a good move. Though event sponsor Monster brought many of its athletes, there was a decided reduction of the pomp and circumstance that prolonged past events (e.g., a concert happened after the race instead of before or during the event).

It’s unclear if that was by design, but for the pace of the show (particularly given Saturday’s mediocrity), this was certainly an improvement.

The goal should be ending every All-Star Race by 10 p.m.

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Though a change in venue would be a wise move for the All-Star event, how about switching up the surface, too?

Kyle Larson’s slide job on Jimmie Johnson for second place on the final lap conjured images of Cup cars … on dirt.

If only there were a dirt track that already had been playing host to a NASCAR national series for the past, oh, four seasons.

A dirt track that already is built around segmented races.

A dirt track where aerodynamics matter so little, hitting the wall actually can be an advantage instead of an impediment.

Hmmm.

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Whether it’s Jordan Anderson’s truck at Atlanta or Erik Jones’ Toyota in the All-Star Open, the splitter has become the new scourge of drivers and mechanics everywhere because of its incompatibility with grass on the straightaways and car setups in general.

What is amusing: When the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow was being introduced, the splitter was hailed as the key to its aerodynamic success.

Many of the rules for the COT were written around the splitter. At an October 2005 test of the new model at Atlanta Motor Speedway, much of the work was devoted to finding the “sweet spot” of the splitter and trying to mimic the success NASCAR felt it had in the truck series with splitter designs.

This isn’t a defense of the splitter (an aesthetic blemish that deservedly seems headed for the boneyard) but a reminder the “fix” assuredly won’t be as simple as just removing it. That probably is a good start for Cup cars, though.

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The return of the souvenir haulers at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed a big hit with longtime fans, per the anecdotal evidence available. But it also highlights another example of the tug of war between keeping the old-guard fan base happy while appealing to Millennials and younger.

There’s a distinct dichotomy in the push to make the races shorter (for the youth with shorter attention spans) while making the race days longer (for those who have grown up spending several hours on the midway before the green flag).

The downsizing of the souvenir truck fleet was sold in part as a way that NASCAR would reduce its carbon footprint, which matters to a younger set that has rallied around environmentally conscious topics. Many of today’s youth also have come of age in the on-demand era of same-day shipping and drone delivery.

While the souvenir haulers might hold some sentimental value and offer a natural gathering place, how many of the fans of tomorrow would prefer to buy at-track retail instead of shopping via online or mobile, where they spend most of their waking hours anyway?

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Speaking of mobile, a good guide for the success of an event these days is how easy it is to follow via social media.

If you kept abreast of the All-Star Race with only a Twitter feed, Saturday night was borderline incomprehensible in 140-character dispatches. That needs to be fixed.

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The ouster of Ford CEO Mark Fields shouldn’t have any impact on NASCAR in the short term. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are in long-term deals with the manufacturer.

But the reason for Fields’ exit – Ford’s sluggishness in developing autonomous cars – should be watched by those in NASCAR and the racing industry.

In an environment where electric car maker Tesla recently became worth more than General Motors (becoming the most valuable automaker despite selling about 9.9 million fewer cars), the discussion about the evolution of the street car — and its potential impact on stock-car racing – will remain an important one.

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With an aggregate win total of 173 in Cup, Xfinity and truck, there’s been much talk about Kyle Busch reaching 200 wins across the three national series. Largely unnoticed is that Busch has 48 wins in the Camping World Truck Series, three short on the circuit’s all-time list behind Ron Hornaday Jr. The all-time winner in the Xfinity Series (87 victories) hinted after Friday night’s win at Charlotte that the truck series might be an eventual victory lap.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to pass Ron and be able to set that (mark) a little bit higher,” said Busch, who has titles in Cup (2015) and Xfinity (’09). ”Hopefully, one day when I’m all said and done with the Cup stuff, maybe I’ll run my retirement tour in the truck series and win the championship and get the trifecta.”

Busch takes his share of grief for “stealing” wins from the regulars of the junior circuits. But his commitment to the series (and reinvesting millions through Kyle Busch Motorsports) is around racing and building roots, and the purity of essence should be lauded.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

NASCAR America: What should Joe Gibbs Racing do about Kyle Busch’s pit crew?

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The first race of Kyle Busch‘s 2017 playoff run did not go well.

After leading 85 laps and winning the first stage, Busch’s day was plagued by consecutive miscues by his new pit crew, which had just been swapped with the one for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez.

After pitting early in the stage because of a loose tire, the No. 18 was penalized for crew members going over the wall too soon.

Busch went two laps down and ultimately finished in 15th, one lap down.

On NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman and Kyle Busch addressed the situation Busch’s team finds itself in after one playoff race and what they should do. Both believe JGR should continue with the pit crews as is.

“Is this nerves? Here’s a team that Daniel has run sixth, seventh and eighth (with)” Petty said. “Now you’re asking them to pit for a car that’s running for the championship. The pressure ramps up. Everything’s a little more intense at the sharp end of the stick than when you’re lost in the crowd. Did that get them yesterday? It was just a mental let down. A mental mistake by the gas man to step over the wall. Over than that, I think they could’ve recovered and I think they will recover. This is one race.”

Said Kligerman: “I agree with the decision of going with the 19’s pit crew, because they used analytics. … I’m glad to seem them do that. They saw the numbers, they said ‘this team is better, let’s use them. This is what we’re going to go off of.’ But that doesn’t account for the human factor, which is that you are pitting for a different driver and drivers enter the box differently.”

Watch the video for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Testing of tires during races ‘fairly common practice’ for NASCAR

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Eyebrows were raised during Sunday’s Cup Series playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway when NASCAR officials disappeared into a blue tent to test tires belonging to the teams of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., dunking them in water.

But Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said it is a “fairly common practice” Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“It’s been going on for a few years,” O’Donnell said. “It’s something we’ve done just to make sure for the competitors, everybody’s on a level playing field. It helps us with Goodyear as well to make sure the tires are legit, which we’ve always found they are.”

It’s an issue the crew chiefs for Busch and Truex are OK with.

“Usually when you’re running good, they’re going to come take them,” Cole Pearn said Sunday. “That’s fine. They’re just doing their due diligence, doing what they should be doing. No issue there.”

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman weighed in on the story and why fans need to know about NASCAR’s practices concerning tires.

“This is something fans haven’t known about,” Petty said. “This is something maybe the guys inside that square, fenced-in area called the garage area all know about and just take for granted. But the fan … they want to know. ‘Why are you guys doing this? What’s this all about?'”

Said Kligerman: “It’s good that they’re doing this because they’re checking on the fact that teams could be trying to cheat the rules a little bit by making the airs leak out of the tires, therefore having a car on the long run that would be really fast because it would keep the right air pressure.”

Watch the above video for more.

Report: Lawsuit reveals Farmers Insurance paid $666,000 a race to sponsor Kasey Kahne

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Almost a year after Farmers Insurance announced it would cease sponsoring Kasey Kahne following the 2017 season, a report by ESPN reveals that Farmers Insurance paid Hendrick Motorsports roughly $666,000 a race to sponsor the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2017.

ESPN’s report is based on documents in a lawsuit filed by Sports Marketing Consultants related to “a dispute on the percentage of commissions owed on the deal” between Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports.

Farmers Insurance, which has sponsored Kahne for six seasons, was the primary sponsor on the No. 5 car in 12 races from 2015-17. There are three races left on the 2017 deal.

Farmers was on the No. 5 when Kahne won the Brickyard 400 in July.

Great Clips announced it would also cease sponsoring Kahne in May. A few weeks after the Brickyard win, Kahne’s only victory since 2014, Hendrick announced he would not be back in the No. 5 next season.

Farmers’ initial contract ran from 2012-14, when it sponsored the No. 5 for 22 races each season. Farmers paid Hendrick $13.5 million in 2012, $14.04 million in 2013 and $16.348 million in 2014, according to the ESPN report.

With the decrease to 12 races a year beginning in 2015, the company paid $7.6 million that season, $7.8 million in 2016 and $8 million this season.

The report also describes various performances bonuses for Hendrick in the initial three-year deal, such as winning a race ($450,000-$550,000) and the Cup championship ($1,157,895).

Read the ESPN story for more details on the contracts.

MORE: Kasey Kahne has new crew chief for rest of playoffs

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Social Roundup: Jimmie Johnson helps out with Lowe’s Hurricane Irma relief efforts

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A day after opening the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Jimmie Johnson went to work helping victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver traveled with one of his daughters to Naples, Florida, to work with his sponsor, Lowe’s, to help those whose lives were upended by the storm that impacted the state last week.

Johnson helped to install air conditioning units, clear away fallen trees and more in his efforts.

The trip to Florida comes after Johnson and his fellow Hendrick drivers established the Team Hendrick Disaster Relief Fund in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. With a goal of $500,000, the fund has raised just over $341,500 so far.

Below is a look at Johnson’s day in Florida.