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 become 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

Bump and Run: All-Star Race picks, surprising wins and more

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Who will have a more wrecked winning car — Erik Jones, who was listed as being involved in three accidents on the way to winning the non-points Busch Clash in February, or the winner of Wednesday night’s All-Star Race at Bristol?

Dustin Long: Erik Jones’ car. Might not be by much.

Daniel McFadin: Erik Jones. It would take a lot for someone to make it to the end of the All-Star Race with more damage than that and win … unless that damage came on the last lap.

Jerry Bonkowski: The winner of the All-Star Race. With $1 million on the line, it’s unlikely any car will get through the race without some damage. The driver with the least damage wins, period.

 

Who is your pick to win the All-Star Race?

Dustin Long: Joey Logano. He isn’t afraid to beat and bang. This could be his race.

Daniel McFadin: Jimmie Johnson. He’s pissed off, has been fast and was a frontrunner at Bristol back in May.

Jerry Bonkowski: Kurt Busch. I’m going to go with a guy who knows his way around Bristol quite well and who has had a great deal of success there.

 

What do you put the chances that Jimmie Johnson makes the playoffs?

Dustin Long: 85%. He’s already been disqualified from one race, losing all but one point from that event, and missed Indy, and is still in a playoff spot. It might not be comfortable for his fans, but I don’t think they should sweat it too much.

Daniel McFadin: 90%. He’s been too fast to not make the playoffs in some form.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m convinced Johnson will make the playoffs, but his success and consistency needs a big jump upward, lest JJ is eliminated at the end of the first round.

 

Cole Custer’s win was surprising. So what’s the most surprising NASCAR win since you’ve seen since following the sport?

Dustin Long: The one that comes to mind immediately is James Buescher’s 2012 Xfinity Series win at Daytona. He was 11th entering the final corner. He won when the top 10 cars wrecked. It was his first NASCAR win and only Xfinity Series victory.

Daniel McFadin: If not Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win, it would be Chase Elliott‘s Roval win last year. He drove nose first into a tire barrier, came back and won. It was shocking to say the least.

Jerry Bonkowski: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in the summer race at Daytona in July 2001, less than five months after his father was killed in the Daytona 500. That was one of the most surprising and emotional wins in any sport I’ve covered in my career.

NASCAR Open starting lineup at Bristol

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Michael McDowell will start on the pole for the NASCAR Open at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw. Aric Almirola joins him on the front row.

Click here for NASCAR Open starting lineup

The winners of each segment advance to the All-Star Race, along with the fan vote winner. Last year, Kyle Larson won a segment in the Open to advance to the All-Star Race and then won that event. Other segment winners last year were William Byron and Bubba Wallace. Alex Bowman advanced through the fan vote a year ago. Bowman has already qualified for this year’s All-Star Race.

 

NASCAR Open at Bristol 

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 85 laps over three segments, 45.3 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 35 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 15 laps.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Martin Truex Jr. to start on pole for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Martin Truex Jr., who is seeking his first All-Star Race win, will start on the pole for Wednesday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Truex will be joined on the front row by Alex Bowman.

Rookie Cole Custer, who earned a spot in the All-Star Race with his win Sunday at Kentucky, will start eighth.

Click here for All-Star Lineup

  • Positions 17-19 will go to segment winners from the NASCAR Open. The 20th starting spot goes to the fan vote winner, which will be announced after the NASCAR Open

Among the special rules for the race:

# The Chose Rule will be used. As drivers approach a designated spot on the track, they must commit to the inside or outside lane for the restart.

# The car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give sponsors more exposure.

# Cars that have automatically qualified for the All-Star Race will have underglow lights on their cars.

 

NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol 

Race Time: 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 140 laps over four segments, 74.6 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 55 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 35 laps. Segment 4 is 15 laps (only green flag laps count in this segment).

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Xfinity playoff grid after Kentucky doubleheader

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The Xfinity Series went to Kentucky Speedway for a doubleheader and Austin Cindric left the track with two wins and a spot in the playoffs.

Cindric, who claimed the first oval track NASCAR wins of his career, is now third on the playoff grid among the six drivers locked into the postseason. He has 15 playoff points.

Noah Gragson, who is second on the grid, won three of four stages in Kentucky and has 18 playoff points.

Six spots remain to be filled on the playoff grid. The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Ryan Sieg (+57 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+14).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-14 points from cutline), Jeremy Clements (-30), Alex Labbe (-42) and Jesse Little (-47).