(Side-by-side racing like this battle between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson was rare Saturday night)
If Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race left you flat you weren’t alone.
Like many race fans, I too was let down by the 27th edition of NASCAR’s annual May race.
The weeks of build-up and hype that raised the level of expectations to perhaps unreasonable levels culminated with what some felt was the worst all-star race since its inception in 1985.
But don’t blame Carl Edwards for stinking up the show.
The stale nature of the all-star event has nothing to do with Edwards’ dominating performance.
Not every race is going to end with a three-wide finish to the checkered flag. It’s the nature of any sports event that sometimes circumstances lead to blowouts or less than thrilling endings.
Sure it didn’t help that for weeks on end fans heard about the gloves coming off and how the non-points all-star race with a million bucks on the line was going to be an event for the ages.
Toss in the “Boys Have at It” nature of the season and the Kevin Harvick-Kyle Busch feud that had boiled over only a few days before and the ingredients seemed to be in place for a memorable night.
It didn’t turn out that way to say the least but there’s nothing NASCAR can do about one of those nights when one team and driver had it all going on.
But what the can do, along with Sprint, SPEED and Charlotte Motor Speedway officials, is find a way to breath new life into a race that has quite frankly gotten stale.
An easy fix is to return the event to what it was originally intended to be – an ALL-STAR race. That means an exclusive event open only to drivers who have accomplished and achieved more than others - specifically winners from the previous season.
That was the concept for what was known as The Winston when it debuted in 1985, and an idea that made the race special and unique.
But somehow as time went by the race became a bloated affair that has turned more run of the mill with each passing season.
In an effort to appeal to fans of all drivers the all-star race has become watered down because now practically everyone can participate.
Rules have been changed, tweaked and modified in recent years to open the qualifying criteria up and in the process have ruined any kind of exclusivity of making the race.
What’s left is some weird hybrid-monster that has been trumped up so much with segments, pit stops and other tricks it barely has any resemblance to a real NASCAR race.
Other sports don’t change the very basis of their rules when all-star time rolls around and neither should NASCAR. Imagine baseball allowing four outs per inning and extending at bats to four strikes. Or the NBA instituting a four-point shot and 40-second shot clock for its all-star game.
Such radical changes would hurt the integrity of those games as the all-star race does to NASCAR.
And not every player gets invited to participate in all-star games. They earn their way through performance as well as in some cases fan vote.
NASCAR needs to take that route immediately to restore an aura of distinctiveness to the race.
The race should only be open to winners from the previous season, two drivers who race in through the preliminary event and one last entry via the fan vote.
That’s it. No former race winners, previous champions or guys whose last name ends in a vowel. It should be a privilege to compete in the event and not simply an open invitation to anyone who can field a car.
Had those rules been in effect this year we would have had 13 drivers in from last season’s win list, two from the Showdown and a fan vote candidate for a very exclusive field of 16.
And let’s eliminate the gimmicks. Run a 40-lap preliminary to determine the two transfer spots and then line-up the main event as a 70-lap affair, just as the original race was created.
Segments don’t do anything but slow down the process and have rarely produced any real racing as drivers save up for the mad ten lap dash to the checkered flag.
Compress the night into a meaningful race where pit stops and strategy also come into play and let drivers, crew chiefs and teams earn their way to the million dollar prize more in line with what they do on a weekly basis.
All of the pomp and festivities leading up to the racing is fine. Concerts, music, light shows, fireworks, driver introductions and other fan-oriented activities should always be a big part of the event.
But let’s not lose sight of what everyone is truly interested in and that’s the racing.
A return to the beginnings of the all-star race would provide the event a needed lift and make it much more relevant than the current product.
Oh and it is imperative to start things much earlier. Saturday night’s 9:50 pm ET start time was nothing short of ridiculous.
And while we’re at it, let’s move the race to a Wednesday night and lead into the Coca-Cola 600 weekend of racing. With the Hall of Fame ceremonies now shifted to January, there’s no reason to hold two weekends of racing in Charlotte every May.
A prime time all-star race would be a big hit on the television ratings front. And with all due respect to SPEED, the race should be on network television with FOX able to reach more than 20 million more potential households than the cable channel. If you're going to showcase your sport, shouldn't you do so to the largest possible audience?
The shift would also allow fans to plan a five or six day vacation to Charlotte leading into the holiday weekend and take in a veritable non-stop schedule of NASCAR racing. The all-star race, trucks, Cup qualifying, Nationwide race and Coca-Cola 600 line-up would rival only Daytona’s Speedweeks in offering a racing Nirvana.
In its current state maybe the better idea is to take the old girl out behind the barn and perform an “Old Yeller” ending.
That would pave the way to adding another real Sprint Cup race to the schedule, an idea I bet the folks at Iowa Speedway would be more than willing to discuss.
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