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

Long: Sentiment grows for more changes to All-Star Race, even new venue

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — Twenty-five years after the celebrated “One Hot Night,’’ NASCAR fans were treated to one lukewarm evening.

While Saturday night’s All-Star Race had its moments — there was some three-wide racing early and Kyle Busch’s winning pass on the final restart proved exciting — this event again didn’t measure up to its past.

Admittedly it’s difficult to match the 1992 All-Star Race — that “hot night” that marked the first night race at a 1.5-mile track and finished with winner Davey Allison crashing after a last-lap duel with Kyle Petty. But when a NASCAR fan asks another “Were you there the night that …” they’re often talking about an All-Star Race 15-20 years ago.

Saturday’s event soon will fade except to Busch fans who saw their driver win his first All-Star Race.

The problem is this event, as much as any Cup race, is meant to entertain and introduce the sport to potential fans with its club-like driver intros, on-track action and short timeframe (Saturday’s race ran 72 minutes).

Three lead changes in 70 laps is hardly considered entertaining even by the most generous fans.

So what’s next?

NASCAR has shown it is willing to make major changes to enhance the action from stage racing to a new playoff format. Stage racing has created excitement at points in races that normally might not have had as much action.

NASCAR hoped to follow that by introducing a second tire compound, a softer tire, for this event. The goal was for the tire to be quicker than the normal tire — but to also wear quicker. The hope was that it would create cars moving forward and backward, giving fans the action they want it see.

“I don’t think Goodyear hit the tire very well,’’ Brad Keselowski said after finishing ninth. “I think they missed pretty big. The tire was supposed to be much faster than it was.’’

Busch said Goodyear could have gone with a “little bit softer, utilize a little bit more grip in order to be faster, have more split between the two tires.’’

Maybe the next move is that NASCAR tries it again next year but Goodyear does more with the tire and creates the bigger difference in speed.

If not that, what else could NASCAR do to match its stance of bigger and bolder moves?

Maybe it’s time for a venue change.

“Bristol Motor Speedway,’’ Clint Bowyer said. “They (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) own them both. It’s only a three-hour drive for Charlotte. That’s where I’d have it.

“If you want to put on a show, you want to see emotion and beating and banging and being able to do something. I don’t know.

“We’ve tried and tried and tried to get ourselves in a situation here in Charlotte where we could do that, you can’t find it. It’s a great big-track program with the 600 and the long runs and that’s when the outside line widens out and you get a little better show. It’s just hard. Everybody is trying. We’re just missing it somehow.’’

Runner-up Kyle Larson, who won the opening two stages, also would like to see the event be held elsewhere.

“I think it’s really cool to change the venue,’’ he said. “I don’t know if racetracks could bid on the All‑Star Race or bid on the final race of the season.

“It would open up different fan bases to come see a big event.  You’re not going to get many people from the West Coast to fly out here for the All‑Star Race, I don’t think. It would be cool to have an All‑Star Race in Fontana or Vegas or Sonoma. Road courses, anywhere. It would be cool to switch it up every year.’’

Or maybe it’s time for a change to the rule book.

“The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed,’’ Jimmie Johnson said after his third-place finish. “You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.’’

But even a seven-time champion admits he doesn’t know how much to cut.

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.’’’

This track can still have its moments with this event but it’s time for NASCAR’s leadership to consider what’s best for the sport. It is still best for the sport to have this event on a 1.5-mile track? Or is it better to keep it here but make other changes?

More needs to be done to make this event something fans won’t soon forget.

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‘You never know’: Kyle Larson goes all out to finish second in All-Star Race

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CONCORD, N.C. – A loud roar went out over Charlotte Motor Speedway on the final lap of the Monster Energy All-Star Race.

It was the kind of roar one would expect when a driver makes a bold, edge-of-your-seat maneuver in hopes of winning $1 million.

Even though it wasn’t, Kyle Larson treated it like it was.

Larson was running right on Jimmie Johnson‘s bumper when he dove low on the No. 48 Chevrolet as they neared Turn 3. No part of Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet touched Johnson’s car as he cleared him … for second place.

Just over a second ahead of Larson, Kyle Busch was preparing to take the checkered flag to win the race and the money after his own bold move 10 laps earlier on a restart.

It was the fact that Busch hadn’t crossed the finish line yet that inspired Larson to give Johnson all he had.

“You never know,” Larson said afterward. “You never know what’s going to happen. I just want to be running second if something was to happen.”

Nothing happened. No miracle part failure, tire blow out or empty gas tank improved or worsened Larson’s position.

Which is a positive for Larson after last years’ All-Star Race, where a power move by Joey Logano with two laps to go put Logano in victory lane and Larson in the wall.

“Probably a little more heartbroken last year than this year,” Larson said. “But this year it was nice to be able to watch the (Monster Energy) Open … in my motorhome, then dominate the first two stages.  The third one, we were really good.  Then our issues kind of evolved right there.”

A year after getting into the All-Star Race by winning the Open in a dramatic drag race with Chase Elliott, Larson qualified on the pole for Saturday’s main event. From there, he led every lap in the first two stages for 40 laps total.

The actual unexpected occurrences that shaped Larson’s night happened on pit road.

After the second round, Larson put on his four option tires and would have been first off pit road had it not been for Ryan Blaney and Clint Bowyer taking two tires each. In the general chaos of the restart, Larson wasn’t able to get back to the point position and he finished the stage in third.

On the final visit to pit road, a slow pit stop resulted in Larson being the fifth car to exit.

“I thought initially our pit crew struggled that last stop,” Larson said. “Our jack post on the right side broke off at some point throughout the race.  So the jackman had to make a couple more pumps to get the car up.  It slowed the stop down enough that we got beat off pit road by three cars.”

Nine green flag laps later, the driver who believes he’s the “last true racer” found a way to be put the pressure on a seven-time champion.

Just in case.

“Ten laps is fun and exciting,” Larson said. “It’s just not enough time to make any ground. I was able to start making ground there the last couple laps. Yeah, I slid Jimmie into three there on the last lap. He was a little upset with me after the race.”

On the cool down lap, Johnson stuck a hand out his window, his way of asking Larson “what are you doing?”

It’s only second place.

“No big deal, really,” Larson said. “I always race hard with Jimmie and I expect the same from him. To me, Jimmie is the greatest driver of all time. So anytime I can race hard with him and pass him, even without getting into him, I’m proud of that.”

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What Drivers Said after All-Star Race

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Kyle Busch earned his first All-Star win Saturday night. He and others in the race had much to say about the event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

KYLE BUSCH — Winner: “It’s the All-Star Race for one and for two, we’ve never won at Charlotte in a Cup car so we finally achieved that goal tonight and won the All-Star race and won a million bucks, so there’s reason to celebrate and to celebrate big. Can’t say enough about Adam Stevens (crew chief). You have Adam Stevens and these guys in the pit box and you can rely on them all day long. I had to do that tonight. You know we weren’t quite the fastest car, but we made the right changes when it mattered most. We made the right moves when it mattered most and we got the most out of our night tonight and got here to victory lane. Feel so relieved, alluded, proud and excited all in the same time.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 2nd: “My pit crew has been awesome all year and I don’t want to take anything away from them. We came down pit road the leader and three people passed us, that was pretty much the difference there. But, in 10 laps, track position is huge. We just didn’t have it there at the end. We had the best car out there, for sure. In traffic I thought it was really good. I thought we had it most of the race but that’s how racing goes. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But I think we had a really fast car today. We’ll go onto the 600, that’s a long race, and try it again.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 3rd: “When you’re the second-place car, you can’t jump the leader. But everybody in the second, third, and fourth row is going to jump and do what they can to roll-up on the situation. So, I was really hopeful of old tires and being on the bottom. They’d be able to hold that lane back, especially Kyle (Busch) and how good he is on race starts. And it just didn’t happen. He got in there. I had a decent start. They weren’t able to push me and get me going. And I had a couple of shots at him. He wasn’t handling too well at the start of the run, but I just drove too hard.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 4th: “You’ve got to do something special in the Monster Energy All-Star Race. We did everything at an A-minus tonight. The pit stops were good. The car was good. The restarts were good. The calls and adjustments were good. Nothing stood out as excellent.  I love the format.  Monster did a great job with this traditional format. Having the option tire I thought was really neat for the crews to use and everybody used them before that last round, how about that.” 

Jamie McMurray – Finished 5th: “The racing was great. The restarts were awesome. It’s interesting how the tire strategy worked out where no one had the greens at the end because track position was so important. I got us behind with missing my pit stall on our qualifying because our car was probably a little bit better than where we finished.  But, pretty pumped for next week. I thought we were the best car on the long run, even though you only had 20 laps tonight, but next week we will have lots of that. So, yeah, I’m really excited.” 

Kevin Harvick – Finished 6th: “We just didn’t put it together there when we came down pit road. We got behind and at that point you don’t have enough laps to make it up.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 7th: “I was happy we made that last round. I guess I was the only car of the open guys to make it to the last round, so that was kind of cool. Just hard to start in the back and expect to move that far forward. Had a good car, though, I was happy about that.  Hopefully, we can take some of that toward next week.” 

Joey Logano – Finished 8th: “We had to just shoot for the fence doing anything we can do to try to make our Shell/Pennzoil Ford a little faster. It was just slow. There are no better words for it. I feel like we kind of got screwed up as soon as practice started and we had issues with our brakes. We had a bad qualifying effort because of that, which set us towards the back. We didn’t practice our car either, and we couldn’t make it any better and it showed in the race. We weren’t very quick at all and we couldn’t pass cars and couldn’t move around the race track. We’ve got a little bit of work to do for next week.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 11th: “You can’t pass anywhere.  It’s not great track conditions, to be honest with you. We had to try something to get our average up or try to win a stage and that’s what we tried.” 

Clint Bowyer – Finished 13th: “It was a good try. Track position is key and you try to do something to get track position and you don’t have the upper hand. They’re better than you on that deal. I think if we would have had tires and started up front, we’d have been hard to handle tonight. We were a good car all night long, it’s just this format and the way the race is. You can’t complain about it because it is what it is. It’s the All-Star Race and everybody wants to be a part of it, it’s just unfortunate that your hands are tied.”

Matt Kenseth — Finished 20th: “It’s pretty disappointing. I thought like tonight, even though we only ran 20 laps, our performance was better. As we made a couple of passes I thought we were keeping pretty good speed, beating everybody except for the leader right there. It was encouraging. I felt like we were going to run better but it’s just kind of the way the year’s going. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Just got to ride it out until it turns.”

Kyle Busch wins first NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte and $1 million

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Scratch one more off Kyle Busch’s bucket list.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup champion won his first career NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capturing Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.

In his 12th All-Star Race, Busch led all of the 10 laps in the final stage to take home the $1 million winner’s check.

Kyle Larson, who won the first two stages of the four-stage event, finished second, followed by third stage winner Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Results, stats for the Monster Energy All-Star Race won by Kyle Busch

Busch becomes the fourth different first-time All-Star Race winner in the last four years, is the 16th different winner in the last 19 All-Star races and is the 23rd different winner in the event’s 33-year history.

And while it was an exhibition, non-points race, it was the first Cup win for any Joe Gibbs Racing driver in 2017.

“There’s reason to celebrate and to celebrate big,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “We weren’t quite the fastest car, but we made the right changes and the right moves when it mattered most and got the most out of our night tonight and got here into victory lane.”

Keselowski was the only driver of the 10 that qualified for the final 10-lap winner-take-all stage to stay out on-track and not pit to start the final stage in the lead position. But Busch made quick work of Keselowski and streaked onward to victory.

Larson won the first two stages, leading all 40 combined laps. However, when Stage 3 began, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney were at the front of the field, and Larson was third when the green flag fell.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Bowyer on Lap 42 and held on to win Stage 3, setting up the 10-driver final stage, which featured Larson, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and defending All-Star Race winner Joey Logano.

With so much money on the line, drivers were both aggressive and cautious from the opening green flag of the 70-lap event. There were no crashes in either of the first two 20-lap stages.

Late in Stage 3, Ryan Newman took his car to the garage after banging fenders with Denny Hamlin, who continued on.

In the All-Star Open that preceded the night’s main event, Bowyer and Ryan Blaney won the first two stages, while Daniel Suarez was the overall Open winner, putting all three drivers into the All-Star Race.

And Elliott was named as the winner of the fan vote, putting him into the 20th and final All-Star Race position.

HOW KYLE BUSCH WON: Patience, which isn’t always one of Busch’s strongest suits, was the key to his win. He did just well enough in the first three stages and then roared from third to the front of the field before even reaching Turn 1 in the final stage and remained in command the rest of the way.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Larson had one of the best races of his career. Sure, he didn’t win, but his two stage wins and finishing second showed Larson likely will be a factor to deal with in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Matt Kenseth’s night ended after Stage 1 with an oil leak (finished 20th). Ryan Newman’s banging fenders with Denny Hamlin cost him a chance to race in the final stage (finished 19th). Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought a loose race car all race and finished 18th out of 20.

NOTABLE: Jimmie Johnson came into Saturday night as the only multiple All-Star race winner, with four wins in the last 18 All-Star races, but couldn’t hold off Kyle Busch in the final stage.

STAGE 1 RESULTS (Laps 1-20): Pole-sitter Kyle Larson led all 20 laps to win and earn an automatic berth in the final 10-lap, winner-take-all segment. Kyle Busch was second, followed by Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

STAGE 2 RESULTS (Laps 21-40): Kyle Larson continued to dominate, leading all 20 laps to win Stage 2. Jimmie Johnson was second, followed by Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

STAGE 3 RESULTS (Laps 41-60): Jimmie Johnson took the lead on Lap 42 and held on to win the stage. Kevin Harvick was second, followed by Larson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I could see a million dollars (go) out the windshield. I just drove too hard.” – Third-place finisher Jimmie Johnson on being unable to hold off Kyle Busch on the final restart.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Coca-Cola 600, the longest race each season, takes place next Sunday, May 28, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski