CONCORD, N.C. — Cars four-wide racing for $1 million. A pass for the lead with two laps left. It was all things the Sprint All-Star Race has lacked in recent years.
Too bad not everyone saw it.
Confusion reigned in the middle of the 113-lap race, leaving competitors, fans and anybody else to wonder what the heck was taking place.
That’s a shame. Few other Sprint Cup races can provide as welcoming an invitation to a casual sports fan than this event, the shortest of the season.
Admittedly, it didn’t help that rain delayed the start by about 45 minutes, pushing it past 10 p.m. ET. Then things got crazy and made it easy for those casual fans to find something else.
“I just know it’s confusing as hell to the causal fan,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after finishing third. “The simpler we can make this stuff, the better.’’
Denny Hamlin admits he was worried “when it took about 10 minutes to explain the rules in the drivers meeting that it was going to be a complicated night.’’
There were rules on when drivers had to pit and rules on how many tires they had to change and rules about who could not pit. And there were lug nut checks, a necessary but time-consuming element that added to the delays between segments, making it easier for some to shrug and turn away from this event.
The confusion reached a crescendo when NASCAR penalized leader Matt Kenseth for not pitting before pit road was closed toward the end of the opening 50-lap segment. Even with the penalty, some cars that had pitted for four tires earlier were trapped a lap down to those that stopped later for only two tires as Kenseth had.
“We have, obviously, a format we have never done before,’’ said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. “We worked diligently trying to come up with every scenario and an answer for every scenario that might crop up. We ran into a situation where our race procedure didn’t give us the opportunity for a wave-around and it created a lot of confusion.’’
What resulted was that only 11 of the race’s 20 cars were on the lead lap with 63 laps left.
Not everyone was convinced that they should have been a lap down. Tony Stewart was furious about the situation, saying on his radio at one point: “I feel like this is the biggest … deal they’ve ever pulled.’’
Ryan Newman said on his radio: “EIRI, right? We’re the only people I know that drop their pants around their own ankles and then try to run.”
EIRI = Except in Rare Instances.
That seemed to define this night.
A blind draw was set before the start of the final segment to determine how many cars would have to pit. It could have been nine, 10 or 11 cars. Eleven was chosen. Problem was that there were 13 cars on the lead lap at the time. That left two — Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — to start on the front row on older tires with 11 cars behind them on new tires. Busch and Johnson had no chance.
The hope with the format was that there would be more cars on the lead lap so there would be more cars that didn’t pit, creating more action.
Still, what happened was exciting as those with new tires searched for anyplace to make a pass.
“For the most part I think Brad (Keselowski)’s idea on the last 13 laps ended up being pretty exciting,’’ Earnhardt said. “That’s what they were looking for. If the fans liked it and enjoyed it, that’s what we’ll do.’’
It’s just that the drivers and NASCAR need to create a simpler format to make it easier for fans to follow and want to watch the entire event. If not, what’s the point?