CONCORD, N.C. – It was a wonderfully shambolic mess that turned the Sprint All-Star Race into astrophysics.
In the “theater of the absurd” (not my words but those of a network host) that transpired Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we saw:
–A Pro Bowl tight end openly wondering on national TV why teams were “punting on second down.”
–A three-time Sprint Cup champion decreeing it “the dumbest damn thing I’ve ever been a part of. … It’s the most screwed up All-Star Race I’ve ever been a part of. I’m glad it’s my last one.”
–A social media meltdown that remains ongoing with flummoxed crew chiefs, drivers and spotters alternately professing disdain, empathy and exasperation about the event.
Yet it still was captivating (however frustrating) and also featured a thrilling and unpredictable conclusion.
From start to finish, it was the most memorable All-Star Race in more than a decade.
Which is why the Sprint Cup circuit needs more of it.
No, we don’t mean the convoluted format so tricked up and impenetrable, its narrative was the NASCAR equivalent of digesting a William Faulkner novel.
Let’s dispense with the niggling codicils and unexpected consequences that had CPAs gleefully dreaming about itemized deductions from Schedule C. This race was loaded with more legal wrangling than Ferko v. NASCAR.
Focus instead on what worked: The racing.
Whether viewed as an unintended consequence or well-designed construct, the action was the overwhelming highlight on a 1.5-mile oval lately synonymous with snoozefests.
The cascading effect of a bizarre early sequence (putting nearly half the field a lap down) ensured there’d be no runaway as in the previous three All-Star Races (when the winner led every lap of the final segment).
While many teams admitted to racing for 12th after the second segment, and Jimmie Johnson successfully claimed that transfer spot into the lead for the final 13-lap dash, the plan to win in clean air couldn’t work because there weren’t enough buffer cars on older tires.
It took half a lap after the green for the front row of Johnson and Kyle Busch to be gobbled up on the last restart.
And once ensured the outcome wouldn’t be a track-position battle, things really got good.
With aerodynamic tweaks in place to keep drivers off throttle for longer through the turns on Charlotte’s grippy, supersonic asphalt, Kyle Larson, 23, and Joey Logano, 25, locked in a stirring battle that left fans cheering and NASCAR marketers swooning.
When Logano swiped first from Larson with two laps remaining, it marked the latest lead change in an All-Star Race in seven years – and it mostly salvaged the head-scratching and hair-pulling preceding it.
It couldn’t have happened without the rules changes, which were the result of a continuing collaboration between NASCAR, teams, drivers and manufacturers on rules that greatly reduced downforce this season.
“Man, if we were running the ’14 or ’15 package, (Larson) could have went wherever (Logano) was going and kept him about 10 car lengths behind him the whole time,” third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “He didn’t ever have to worry about it. The fact that (Logano) can drive up there right to him, we’re going down the right direction.”
The ill-begotten format merely was a byproduct of a NASCAR industry furiously trying to lurch toward something better.
Saturday showed all options must stay on the table in remaining vigilant to ensure Sprint Cup – really, all of racing – keeps striving for relevance.
It’s why the Indianapolis Motor Speedway jazzed up its qualifying format this weekend in the absence of any Bump Day drama. Purists might hate waiting until the final hour to determine the fastest qualifier among nine drivers, but it’s driven by desperation to hold interest (which it certainly did via feel-good pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe).
The same factors are at play in NASCAR.
Saturday night proved some ideas quickly should be cleaved.
Mandatory pit stops that must happen by a certain lap? Meh.
There is a fine line here between being innovative and asinine.
“Gimmicks and all that stuff is going down the wrong path,” Earnhardt said. “The way to make the racing exciting is to make the cars exciting.”
Or help put them in situations engendering excitement. How about shorter races (50 laps still is too long for an All-Star segment, by the way)? De-emphasizing aerodynamics without shunning technology? Incentivizing racing with no quarter as much as possible (which Larson sublimely has managed the past two weeks)?
Don’t stop devising ways to make the on-track product scintillating.
Keep generating creative suggestions … but aggressively eradicate those that don’t work.
That’s a concept that’s simple to understand.