Sprint All-Star Race

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Drivers mull ways to make Unlimited, All-Star Race more ‘prestigious’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — How can NASCAR make the Sprint All-Star Race and the Sprint Unlimited more prestigious and interesting for fans?

Drivers mulled that during Thursday night’s Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting, Denny Hamlin said.

The answer could be limiting the field for both races.

“Trying to make it as prestigious as it probably used to be,’’ Hamlin said Friday of the goal for both races. “It expanded over the last few years, the Unlimited especially, and even our All-Star event. It’s over half the field, not really that prestigious. We’d like to get some of that back. If you tighten up how you get in, maybe these guys will keep that in the back of their mind when going for a pole and they’ll go for it.

“You can tighten it up by making it a certain way to get in. The fan vote and all that stuff is cool, but it’s also gimmicky and gets a lot of people in versus making it the true race winners or pole winners.’’

The Sprint Unlimited, held the week before the Daytona 500, and Sprint All-Star Race, run the weekend before the Coca-Cola 600, will have new names next year with the series getting a new title sponsor.

That provides a good chance for NASCAR to consider changes to both events, which have lost prestige.

This year’s Sprint Unlimited had 25 cars. The exhibition race was open to 2015 pole winners, former event winners, former Daytona 500 winners and all 16 drivers who competed in the previous year’s Chase. Any remaining open spots were filled based on driver points from the previous year.

The Sprint All-Star Race had 20 cars. It is open to drivers who have won a race in the current or preceding year, past series champions, and past All-Star winners. The field also had three cars from the Sprint Showdown advance along with two fan vote winners.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the racing: ‘This is incredible what we’re able to do’

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Saying drivers could race each other in ways they couldn’t last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. praised the racing in Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race and said on his weekly podcast that it will keep improving.

Earnhardt, who finished third in the event won by Joey Logano, was thrilled about what drivers could do in the event.

“From what I could tell on social media, nobody complained about the racing and that’s important,’’ Earnhardt said on the Dale Jr. Download. “We’ve got that racing going, and we can make that even better. There’s a lot more gains to be made. NASCAR is certainly working in the right direction.’’

Earnhardt said a key factor was how Logano chased Kyle Larson in the final segment and passed for the lead with two laps to go. It marked the latest lead change in a Sprint All-Star Race in seven years.

“When I saw (Logano) get up to (Larson) and not get stuck behind him, he was actually able to drive all the way up to his bumper and get on his quarter panel and stuff, that’s stuff we couldn’t do last year, the year before,’’ Earnhardt said. “We haven’t been able to do that in years.

“We’ve been so limited because of the big hole these cars were punching. We couldn’t even get to each other. We’d get stuck three, four, five, 10-car lengths behind a car without any chance of actually being able to drive up to their bumper. So this is incredible what we’re able to do this year, in my opinion. We’ve got that going in the right direction.

“That’s a very good thing, something to be excited about. Yes, the All-Star race was kind of goofy, there’s a few too many gimmicks in the sport for my taste, but the racing is getting better and hopefully the good racing and the quality racing is going to continue to bring people to the race track and get people to turn on the television.’’

NASCAR official says one driver not to blame for All-Star confusion

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NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said that one driver shouldn’t be blamed for the Sprint All-Star Race format, admitted that “we learned some lessons” from last weekend’s race but was encouraged by the racing.

O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made his comments Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Brad Keselowski was given credit for some of the ideas when the format was introduced — and then blamed for what resulted Saturday night — but O’Donnell said the format changes included input from several drivers, NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway, among others.

“I’ve seen some of the blame, some of the tweets that are cast upon one driver, let me dispel that myth,’’ O’Donnell said. “This was an inclusive effort. Were there some folks that maybe didn’t like the concept going in? Sure, but that’s any part of a format. I’m proud of what we put together in working with folks, working with the track and the industry. When you saw it play out in the race, I don’t want to say it was a perfect storm, but it was.’’

Problems occurred late in the first 50-lap segment. All teams were required to make a green-flag pit stop during that segment. Matt Kenseth was the only driver who hadn’t when Jamie McMurray’s spin brought out the caution on Lap 47. The caution period went to the end of the segment.

Kenseth had no chance at that point to fulfill the green-flag pit stop requirement before the segment ended.

NASCAR held Kenseth for a lap on pit road. Still, eight cars were a lap down and had no chance of getting their lap back. In a typical race, they could have stayed on the track for the wave around to get back on the lead lap while those ahead pitted. Problem was that NASCAR required all teams to pit after the first segment for at least two tires.

“In hindsight, we didn’t have the wave-around rule,’’ O’Donnell said. “Once you mandate that teams come down to change tires together, that prevented us from having a wave around and that created where we trapped cars a lap down.

“Do we wish we would have had that in place? Absolutely. Could we have made a call to maybe just wave them around anyway? We probably could have. The guys who had a lap up on everybody, what would they say? It was an unfortunate circumstance. We thought we had anticipated everything, but this one snuck up on us.’’

O’Donnell also was asked if the event would remain at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It has been run there every year but once since debuting in 1985.

“We’re happy with the event at Charlotte,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our intent is that it will be at Charlotte.’’

O’Donnell said that Tony Stewart would not be fined for his comments on FS1’s broadcast. O’Donnell said he talked to Stewart after the race.

O’Donnell also said that he felt good about the racing. Joey Logano chased leader Kyle Larson and passed him with two laps to go to win.

We put some tweaks into the rules package, certainly minor, but wanted to see directionally if it would continue to have a positive influence on a track, especially at Charlotte, that has been one of the more challenging tracks for us both from tire wear and the leader getting kind of a big separation from second place,’’ O’Donnell said.

“What you saw really throughout the night, especially with some of our up-and-coming talent battling door-to-door for wins was really encouraging to see. The ability to pass certainly improved for the weekend and expect to see that continue for the (Coca-Cola) 600. Directionally, from a race product, (it’s) really continuing on what we’ve seen all year long, which is absolutely encouraging.’’

Upon Further Review: Sprint All-Star Race

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The last couple of weeks have showcased some fascinating duels between young drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

Kyle Larson has been involved in each.

Larson dueled with Chase Elliott for second place at Dover earlier this month. Larson eventually pulled away and challenged Matt Kenseth for the win before settling for second.

In Saturday’s Sprint Showdown, Larson battled Elliott for the win in the final segment to advance to the Sprint All-Star Race. Although their Dover battle was without contact, Larson squeezed Elliott into the wall off Turn 4 of the final lap of the Showdown, and they hit before Larson won.

“Kyle did what he had to do to beat us back to the end of the line, which is part of it,’’ said Elliott, who advanced to the All-Star Race via the fan vote.

Larson was aggressive on that final lap because he feared that if he finished second he wouldn’t advance to the All-Star Race via the fan vote.

“I had to use him up pretty good there,’’ Larson said of Elliott. “Feel bad about that. I feel like me and Chase race really well together. He’s always raced me clean, and I know I raced him dirty there, but I had to.’’

Saturday night saw Larson facing another nemesis in the Sprint All-Star Race.

Joey Logano.

Larson charged to the lead at the start of the final segment, but Logano stalked him. Logano passed Larson with two laps to go. Logano won $1 million. Larson bounced off the wall and finished 16th.

“I hate that I keep letting my team down,’’ Larson said. “I tried to hang on his quarter panel like I did with Chase earlier (in the Showdown). I got really loose as soon as I got in the corner. We were going so fast that I couldn’t correct it and ended up drilling the wall.

It’s not the first time that Logano has kept Larson from winning. In 2014, Larson finished runner-up three times. He finished second to Logano at New Hampshire and Kansas that year.

“He’s a heck of a racer,’’ Logano said about Larson. “He’s going to win a lot of races, that’s for sure, and it’s fun to race against him, and it’s fun to see the youth in this sport. For me, starting eight years ago now, to see guys that are close to my age now, and I get to race them for wins is a lot of fun.”

YOUTH MOVEMENT

The All-Star Race marked the eighth time in the last nine Sprint Cup races that at least one driver age 25 and younger has scored a top-five finish.

All-Star Race: Joey Logano (he turns 26 Tuesday) won.

Dover: Kyle Larson (age 23) finished second. Chase Elliott (20) placed third.

Kansas: Ryan Blaney (22) finished fifth.

Talladega: Elliott was fifth.

Richmond: No driver 25 and younger placed in the top five.

Bristol: Elliott was fourth. Trevor Bayne (25) placed fifth.

Texas: Logano placed third. Elliott was fifth.

Martinsville: Larson was third. Austin Dillon (was 25 at the time) placed fourth.

Auto Club: Logano was fourth.

STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Days after a frank assessment of his team and season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt better after his third-place finish in the All-Star race.

Earnhardt is 11th in the points — the lowest he’s been in the points at this time of the season since 2010 — and said on his weekly podcast that “we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and really get to it here, figure out what’s going on and what we need to be doing, start really trying to find some speed and some answers.’’

Earnhardt noted on his podcast that the All-Star weekend wouldn’t solve all their issues but would be a start. After Saturday night’s race, Earnhardt was encouraged.

“For our team it’s a good step in the right direction to get more competitive,’’ he said. “A lot was made about the comments I made in the podcast on Monday. I just want the team to succeed and really like the crew and Greg (Ives, crew chief), and I think we can do it. We did it last year.

“We started this year off really awesome and hit a little rough patch, but this week was a great opportunity for us to learn, and I think we did. We had about 80 percent of the setup on the car was new stuff. So I hope Greg learned a lot. We didn’t get a lot of practice, so we had to learn as much as we could in the race, and I think we learned some stuff.’’

COVER BOY

By placing fourth and as the highest-finishing Toyota driver in the All-Star Race, Carl Edwards will be on the cover of the NASCAR Heat Evolution game for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. The game will debut Sept. 13.

Joey Logano, Kyle Larson battle in final laps of All-Star Race (video)

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Kyle Larson fought to hold off Joey Logano during the closing laps of Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte. But after Larson made contact with the No. 22 of Logano and drove up into the wall, Logano pulled ahead to take his first checkered flag in six All-Star races.