The Home Run Derby is the highlight of the MLB All-Star Game. The NBA has its slam dunk and three-point competition. Even the NFL's Pro Bowl plays by its own set of rules.
What makes NASCAR's All-Star Race special?
That's a question left unanswered following another tiresome thrashing up front, this time by Ryan Blaney at Texas Motor Speedway. Blaney led the final 84 laps in a 2022 race where he was never challenged, even after NASCAR threw a controversial caution some 300 feet before he hit the start/finish line. It was the same type of race fans see every week, except these three stages were imperfectly placed at a track struggling to conform to the sport's aero challenges.
"You can't pass at all," Kyle Larson complained after blowing a right front tire. "Especially the leader anyways."
That made the biggest All-Star Race controversy whether Ryan Blaney got his window net in place safely for the final restart (more on that in a minute). But NASCAR's All-Star Race problem goes deeper than what racetrack they're on. Whether it's past venues like the intermediate oval in Charlotte, which hosted the event for 30+ years, or the fan favorite short track of Bristol Motor Speedway, the storyline remains the same: something's missing.
It's not that NASCAR isn't trying. Their focus this weekend was on qualifying, turning the final round into a NCAA Tournament-style elimination that included a tire change by the pit crew.
But – and no offense to these athletes manning pit road – are NASCAR fans tuning in every weekend to watch the jackman? This All-Star Race is built to highlight the sport's best drivers, and even that label is a bit of a stretch. While the NBA All-Star game highlights the best 6-8 percent of its players, the starting field for NASCAR was 24 drivers, a whopping 66 percent of the field that races each week.
So, tightening up the entry list would be a start. Limit automatic qualifiers for the All-Star Race to 2022 race winners only, leaving just a few extra slots through the Open qualifier and fan voting.
Next is the track. Make it different, a place the Cup Series has never run before or a place with historic significance. Two short tracks immediately come to mind: A rehabilitated North Wilkesboro Speedway, which last hosted a Cup race in 1996, or South Boston Speedway in nearby Virginia. The L.A. Coliseum exhibition earlier this year was successful in part because it was a challenge this generation of drivers had never faced before.
That challenge should include the cars, too. Why not roll out a one-race, SRX-style vehicle with equal equipment, forcing these All-Star teams to master it while not putting strain on their own shops? It's a new challenge for the pit crews as well, and you can get them more involved in the race: make a mandatory pit stop where the slowest one eliminates a driver regardless of track position.
There's so much NASCAR can and must do with an event that needs fresh energy to survive: the All-Star Race consistently provides the lowest ratings of any race all year. You can't claim to make an event for the fans and then spend the night putting them to sleep.
Green: Team Penske. Blaney led the charge for a Team Penske group that nearly produced the first 1-2-3 finish in All-Star Race history. Hamlin slid in between them for second but a win for Blaney, third for Austin Cindric and fourth for Joey Logano gives a jolt of energy to a NASCAR Cup program that remains a step behind Hendrick Motorsports.
Yellow: Daniel Suarez. The final transfer from the sport's All-Star Open, Suarez charged from 23rd to inside the top five as one of the few drivers able to pass. But if second place is still the first loser… what is fifth? He leaves Texas still winless in the NASCAR Cup Series and 49 points behind Aric Almirola for a 2022 playoff spot.
Red: Stewart-Haas Racing. Kevin Harvick has to be embarrassed, a three-time Texas winner who looked like he was down a cylinder all night. He, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe never came close to sniffing the top 10 and SHR was an All-Star Race afterthought.
Speeding Ticket: NASCAR Officials. What in the world was NASCAR thinking throwing a caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scraping the wall on the backstretch during the final lap? Stenhouse still finished the race after a caution mere seconds before Blaney would have won.
"Obviously," said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller, "Everybody knows we … prematurely called that yellow flag."
Since the rules for the All-Star Race are different, a caution that late still meant an overtime restart instead of the race being over. Blaney forgot, dropping his window net which caused a safety issue and a subsequent rules violation. NASCAR doubled down on their blunder by letting Blaney put the window net up himself, a virtual impossibility for a driver to latch.
"It almost takes two people to do it outside the car," Blaney admitted, "Let alone me and my scrawny arms inside the car sitting down and not being able to get a lot of leverage on it."
A closer look shows him holding it up by hand to get cleared by NASCAR officials. Judge for yourself.
That left no safety net for NASCAR officials trying to give a half-hearted explanation. Second-place finisher Denny Hamlin was left irate over it all, calling out the sport for a sloppy finish.
Never should have been a yellow in the first place. They put Blaney in the situation he was in. To make up for it they let him break a rule. 2 wrongs don’t make a right.— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) May 23, 2022
Blaney W, NASCAR L
The night's scary crash came when Kyle Busch blew a tire while leading. Pulling to the inside line on the tri-oval, Ross Chastain couldn't stop in time and ran right over the No. 18 Toyota, collecting Chase Elliott.
Thankfully, all drivers wound up OK and walked away from the incident.
"I had a long time to watch him," Chastain said. "He was coming down, and I just guessed left. And I froze in the moment … where you're focused on the point of contact, and if you keep looking at it, you're going to hit it. And I stared at his driver's door and that's right where I drove. I should have had those reflexes to turn right and go around him."