Ryan: Three thoughts on the Sprint All-Star Race

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1 – Clean air is king at Charlotte: For the third consecutive year in the Sprint All-Star Race, the winner led all 10 laps in the final segment. It’s a simple equation: Take a 1.5-mile track whose asphalt hardly has degraded since being repaved in 2006, add 20 aero-sensitive race cars that are prissy in traffic but handle like a slot car out front and throw the green for a 10-lap dash to a $1 million payday. The result is predictable: If you’re not in the first three rows, you don’t have a chance of winning. Brad Keselowski, whose chances were shot when he sped out of the pits trying to claim the lead after the mandatory four-tire stop, said even starting second Saturday beside winner Denny Hamlin wouldn’t have been enough to win. “Whoever gets the clean air with this format, and this rules package, is going to drive away,” Keselowski said. “We’ve seen that for the last three years and with this particular car, it’s probably even more so. I thought (Kurt Busch) and (Kevin Harvick) were probably two or three 10ths faster than everybody without clean air, and it doesn’t matter.” This has been the refrain at Charlotte Motor Speedway for nearly a decade, and it’s likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s NASCAR’s call whether this is the right venue to host an event that is billed as a no-holds-barred, slam-bang affair. But if nonstop action in short spurts is what defines an All-Star Race for stock cars, Charlotte Motor Speedway would seem less than conducive to producing it.

2 – No room for error: The All-Star Race is built on a reputation of reckless abandon, but the pathway to victory lane permits few mistakes. Hamlin overcame a speeding penalty in the pits before the third segment because his average finishing position, pit crew and first pit stall (from winning the pole position) lifted his No. 11 Toyota back into the lead for the final restart. But the emphasis on maintaining position prevented others from overcoming errors. Kevin Harvick qualified 20th, starting last in an event where a top-five finish in every segment was critical to post a strong average finish, and it was too big a hole despite having the fastest car in the field. Keselowski led a race-high 49 laps but was doomed by the speeding penalty. Kurt Busch got snookered by Hamlin on the last restart and finished third despite having a car fast enough to lead 24 laps. It’s laudable that a prestigious event demands precision and perfection, but it also is commendable to reward the guys with the fastest cars for hanging it out.

3 – It’s hard to spin in Sprint Cup: This was the eighth caution-free All-Star Race and the first since 2008, and it wasn’t because drivers weren’t flirting with danger. Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray each made impressive saves after their cars went sideways. Over the course of 150 laps the past two days at Charlotte, there was only one yellow flag for a spin (JJ Yeley in Friday’s Sprint Showdown). On one hand, it’s a testament to the ability of NASCAR’s stars, but is it also a commentary on the current rules package? Is it just that much easier for a highly skilled driver to control a car through a skid with less horsepower?