I will be honest right upfront. I'm not much of a fan of the All-Star Race.
Back when it was first introduced as “The Winston,” there was a unique flavor to the event as a spotlight for drivers who were race winners from the previous season.
But as time went by and the race became more bloated to basically include the entire Sprint Cup Series garage area in one way or another, the race lost its luster for me.
I've thrown out several ideas of how to spice things up but short of simply erasing the race from the calendar, none of course will fly with NASCAR .
In my fantasy world the All-Star Race would move to a short track, where the 20-lap segments culminating with a ten-lap dash for one million dollars format would really blossom.
However in the real world that just is not going to happen.
So I give in and say that if the race is not going to rotate around the country like other sports' all-star affairs, Charlotte is as good a place as any.
This year NASCAR put yet a new wrinkle on the proceedings by giving drivers actual incentive to win the four preliminary 20-lap segments leading up to the finale. That did make for some very exciting racing at times, something that has been in short supply this year particularly at mile-and-a-half tracks like CMS.
However Jimmie Johnson played the night perfectly with his win in the first segment allowing the five time champ to hang back the rest of the way, knowing he'd have a good shot at being the leader for the money dash.
Charlotte deserves credit for turning the Saturday night shootout in a spectacle. Lights, glamour, fireworks and other glitz make this one of the fan friendliest on the schedule.
While I could do without some of the pomp and circumstance (the burnout contest and the fan produced driver intro videos were painful), overall the night provides enough to keep most entertained.
Now with the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte, tying the all-star weekend with events at the state of the art museum is a no brainer.
The eyes of the racing world are on Charlotte despite qualifying and preparation for the Indy 500 taking place at the same time. Indianapolis still gets its share of attention but let's face it – this year more than the last five years, the buzz around open wheel's biggest race is more like a dull hum.
I am a proponent for tightening up the proceedings and rather than extending the Charlotte stay over two weekends with the All-Star Race and 600, run the Sprint affair on a Wednesday or Thursday and give NASCAR a mid-week prime time show, while offering more for race fans to do in a shorter period of time.
Perhaps that will come in time. Attendance on Saturday night was solid but sliding the race as part of a four or five day stretch of races might entice more fans to attend.
If this annual May event is going to stay on the NASCAR calendar, it makes sense to keep it right in Charlotte.
But given Saturday night's final turn of events, another round of tweaks to the format is probably in order.
Jimmie Johnson – Followed his Southern 500 win at Darlington with trip number three to victory lane in the All-Star Race. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the night to perfection with great strategy and a rocket fast car to pick up the cool one million dollar first prize.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Didn't need the fan vote to make the main event after winning the Sprint Showdown. Then went on to turn in a solid performance in the All-Star Race and bring home a fifth place finish. Junior and company believe they have one coming after last year's fuel mileage bobble in the Coca-Cola 600 and bring a lot of confidence to next week's race in Charlotte after Saturday night.
Kurt Busch – Capped another controversial-filled week with a top 10 All-Star Race finish. Busch didn't do himself any favors in the public relations department this week with a testy Charlotte press conference to discuss last week's Darlington tangle with Ryan Newman, referring to the feud as “WWE action.” He let his driving do the talking on Saturday night.
Carl Edwards – His bid to become the first back-to-back All-Star Race winner since Davey Allison turned the trick in 1991-1992 went up in smoke – literally – with a blown engine. Edwards admitted the Roush engine team was trying something different for the race, which most likely won't be brought back next weekend given the results.
Greg Biffle – His car looked like something from a Cheech and Chong movie when Biffle also suffered a blown engine and had his cockpit fill with smoke and fire. The No. 16 team will also not be using the same engine package in the Coca-Cola 600.
Paul Menard – Got into an on-track shoving match with Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick, which triggered a spirited radio communication exchange. Probably going to be a meeting come Monday morning at team headquarters in Welcome, North Carolina.
(Choice comments and communications from drivers and crew chiefs)
"I was going to do everything I could to get this Penske organization in the race... or I was gonna die tryin." – A.J. Allmendinger after finishing second in the Sprint Showdown.
"I always try to do the right thing, and hopefully that pays off at the end." – Bobby Labonte on winning the fan vote.
"I never assume I'm going to win the vote. The fan support to me is a gift, and I don't ever take it for granted." – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"If he wants to hit me, I'm gonna hit him back!" – Kevin Harvick after contact with RCR teammate Paul Menard.
"All that stress for nothin! Ahahaha!" – Jimmie Johnson after taking the checkered flag.
"I saw Carl pull over and thought he was trying to get to the booth." – Matt Kenseth on teammate Carl Edwards' early exit with engine problems.
On a scale of one to five "Pistone Pistons" I'll give Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race a three. The new format did add some spark to the race and created side-by-side racing, something that has been rare this season especially on mile-and-a-half tracks like Charlotte. Putting weight on winning one of the four segments was a good idea that forced drivers to run hard. Unfortunately the ten-lap dash to the finish fizzled out the night with Johnson's strategy too good and his car too fast for any kind of dramatic end to the 28th edition of the race. The All-Star Race will never be perfect but Saturday night wasn't that far off.
DOWN THE ROAD
We now return you to the real season and next Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. The point championship will be back in the mix after this weekend's fun and games. The longest race of the year usually has its share of tranquil moments as drivers try to nurse their cars to the finish of the grueling day-night affair. But last year's wild ending when fuel mileage turned the entire race literally upside down was a reminder that anything can happen after four hours and 600 miles. It will also be interesting to see how much of the Danica factor impacts the race now that she's shifted her Memorial Day weekend spotlight from Indy to Charlotte.