NASCAR rejiggered the format of Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race in the hope of pumping more drama into the event.
The changes only appeared to cause confusion and hard feelings at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So, after Joey Logano passed Kyle Larson with two laps to go to win his first All-Star Race (and the $1 million that went with it), only one thing was completely clear: The idea of driving from behind on new tires at the end of the race was better than driving on older ones at the front of the field.
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How the race reached that point was a study in misunderstanding and miscommunication, sometimes at about 180 mph. The rules of the new 50-50-13 lap format, which required a fair amount of study to begin with, nearly came unraveled at times during the race’s first two segments.
“I’m as baffled as anybody,” said Tony Stewart, who wrecked out of the race in the second segment. “It’s the most screwed up all-star race I’ve ever been involved in. I’m just madder than hell because I don’t know how they officiated this race.”
Said Matt Kenseth: “I had no idea what was going on. None.”
And Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I didn’t know (which) way was up and (which) way was right and left.”
Questions started early
The questions began during the first segment, which included a mandatory green-flag pit stop for the minimum of two tires. When would it make the most sense for teams make that stop?
Most cars pitted at about the halfway point and took four tires.
But several others waited until later in the segment to pit. Then some apparent confusion with the rules cost Matt Kenseth, who was leading at the time.
After Jamie McMurray spun on Lap 46 and forced a caution, Kenseth waited one extra lap before coming in. But the rules dictated that cars had to pit under green-flag conditions, and Kenseth went in under caution. He was penalized one lap by NASCAR.
“I would have made it to pit road,” Kenseth said on his radio. “But I didn’t know.”
Kenseth’s mental error trapped several cars behind him and put them a lap down. That ended up creating confusion on how the cars inverted before the final segment would line up, with several cars scored a lap down after not being allowed to get their laps back by the normal “wave around” rule.
The second segment featured a three-car wreck involving Stewart, Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. The restart occurred on Lap 81, meaning cars had to scramble to pit within the next four laps for their green-flag pit stops.
That set up the final segment, before which, through a random draw, the first 11 cars were sent to the rear of the field with new tires.
That put Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. up front, all on old tires. Larson, Earnhardt, Logano and Kurt Busch were among those immediately behind the leaders, all on new tires.
Advantage, new rubber
The drivers with fresh tires had the advantage, however.
Larson and Logano were the first of a big group of cars streaming past Johnson. Johnson, a four-time all-star winner, ended up being passed by every car with new tires before the end of the first lap of that final segment.
After a three-lap, side-by-side battle for the lead, Larson slid up and scraped the wall between Turns 1 and 2 with three laps to go, and Logano ran away for a 1.142-second victory.
“He ran me hard, and I had to run him hard, but it’s for a million bucks,” Logano said.
A victory overshadowed
Overshadowing Logano’s victory, however, was the turmoil from earlier in the race.
“We had a format that we never had done before and we worked diligently to come up with every scenario that might crop up,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition. “We ran into a situation where our race procedures didn’t give us the opportunity for the wave-around and it created a lot of confusion. If we continue this format, we’ll have to look at that.
“You have to expect that certain circumstances will happen in this type of race. We had one crop up that we could have been more ready for and we weren’t.”
On the defensive
The new format was mostly the idea of driver Brad Keselowski, who finished second and was on the defensive later.
“There was a next-to-last lap pass for the lead,” Keselowski said. “There were several passes for the lead.
“The last four (all-star) races, there hasn’t been a pass for the lead in the last 20 or 30 laps. I think our fans deserve a better format than that and they got that (Saturday). I don’t know how you can get much more compelling racing than what we saw, so they need to get unconfused and enjoy the racing.”
Countered Earnhardt: “Gimmicks and all that stuff, trying to trick up the race is going down the wrong path. The way to make the racing exciting is to make the cars exciting.”