It’s hard to manufacture drama in sports – to artificially create Game 7s, or buzzer-beating 3-pointers, or last-lap passes to win a NASCAR race by a nose.
The Sprint All-Star race is giving it another shot Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The all-star race tweaks its format about as often as a teenager checks his smartphone, and so once again fans will need to learn a new format for the Saturday-night race.
Or they could just sort of figure it out as it goes along, which would be totally understandable because this race is pretty complicated. It includes such things as a 13-lap final segment – not 10, not 20, but 13 – and a field inversion of either nine, 10 or 11 cars before the final segment of the race. There is also a mandate to ensure that the cars in the second half of the pack will be running on new tires for those last 13 laps, trying to catch those on slightly older tires in the front half.
Lest you think this is all just another one of those crazy racing things, remember that no one plays defense in the NBA all-star game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl allows no exotic blitzing. All all-star events are somewhat different than their regular-season counterparts, and that’s fine. As driver Brad Keselowski – who helped come up with this latest format – said recently: “It’s the all-star race, and I feel like the all-star race gets a free pass on gimmicks.”
This is certainly gimmicky, and that’s just fine if it works. The problem the past few years has been that previous gimmicks really haven’t paid off.
The past five winners of the all-star race have all started in the top two of the final segment, meaning that we’re not exactly seeing a pass in the grass very often. Usually, the guy in front has simply held off everybody else in those final 10 laps.
Denny Hamlin won the 2015 all-star race, becoming the fifth consecutive all-star race winner to start either first or second in the final segment.
Will that happen this time? No one seems to know. There are three segments to the race – 50, 50 and 13 laps. Before the final segment, a random draw will determine whether the first nine, 10 or 11 cars will be forced to come in for a four-tire change. The remainder of the field stays out on the track and moves up. That means, for instance, if 11 cars are “inverted,” the car that is in 12th place at the end of 100 laps will suddenly be in first.
“I think everybody’s going to try to finish 12th in the second segment, and I think that’s going to be very interesting,” driver Matt Kenseth said.
Said driver Kevin Harvick: “It’s hard for me to wrap my arms around a race for 12th. ... I think for me, I’d rather be first (after the second segment concludes).”
Carl Edwards comes around
Driver Carl Edwards wasn’t a fan when he originally got wind of the latest incarnation of the all-star rules, but he has come around. Said Edwards: “When I first heard about these changes, I thought, ‘Oh man, it’s going to be tough. I don’t understand this. ...’ But if I were a fan, I’d like something that has the garage frustrated and confused.”
Because the all-star race is a non-points race, the difference between first and second is even larger than usual. First place pays a million dollars, and no one even seems to know or care what second place pays. But that million-dollar prize has been around awhile, and it hasn’t made any driver manage to magically find a rocket button and zoom to the front.
Cars will also be set up with less downforce and sideforce than usual for the all-star race, purposely making them more difficult to handle.
Maybe the older tires will help negate the “clean air” advantage for frontrunners; that’s what everyone is hoping anyway. Kenseth is not sure it will, warning that “we might be a little bit optimistic with the (small) number of laps (in the final segment) and how big the invert is, you know?”
Why 13 laps for the final segment, anyway?
“It’s not like some devil-worshiping thing, I can promise you that,” Keselowski said recently. Instead, organizers thought that in most racing scenarios that a driver could weave his way through the field in somewhere between 10-15 laps on newer tires, and averaging that out to 13 laps rather than 12 sounded cooler to somebody.
The power of 13
Dan Marino would undoubtedly approve, although those with triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) will not. They barely got through a Friday the 13th last week.
In any case, the proof will be in what everyone hopes is not too soggy of a pudding. Rain could play havoc with the all-star schedule once again, as it did on Friday. But once the all-star race gets its field set and gets started, we will see whether this latest format will stick around for more than a year.
Said Kenseth: “The racer in me wants the fastest car to win. ... The fan in me wants to see a close finish and exciting races.”
That’s what everyone wants. But if capturing lightning in a bottle was easy, this format would have undergone its final tweak 20 years ago. Instead, they’re still trying to build the perfect race from scratch. Good luck, Charlotte Motor Speedway – you’ll need it.
Friday’s events were postponed because of rain, and more showers are expected on Saturday. Tentative schedule:
9:30-10 a.m.: All-Star race practice
11 a.m.: Sprint Showdown
12:30 p.m.: N.C. Lottery 200 Truck Series race
7:10 p.m.: All-star race qualifying
9 p.m.: Sprint All-Star race