In the beginning, NASCAR’s annual All Star Race was a masterpiece of simple, straightforward beauty. Line up all the winners from the previous season, trim the distance to a mere heat race, guarantee the winner a million dollars in cold, hard cash, then throw the green flag and watch the sparks fly.
The system worked extremely well for many years, producing memorable moments like Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 “Pass in the Grass,” Davey Allison’s crash-marred checkered flag in 1992 and Darrell Waltrip’s “I hope he chokes on it,” Victory Lane interview in 1989.
Sadly, television producers and advertising executives soon got their hands on the recipe, remaking the All Star Race into a baffling amalgam of segments, contrived pit strategy and fan voting. Like a motorized version of reality TV queen Heidi Montag, the event was nipped, tucked, tightened and trimmed into a product that longtime fans no longer recognized.
The race’s all-time low came last season, when Segment One winner Jimmie Johnson and Segment Two winner Matt Kenseth spent the rest of the evening lollygagging at the rear of the field, saving their cars for a guaranteed, up-front starting spot in the final, decisive 10-lap segment. Fans responded with justified disdain, prompting NASCAR to rework the format for this year’s event, yet again.
In 2013, the Sprint All- Star Race will reward hard driving, rather than lollygagging. At the conclusion of the fourth segment, the field will be realigned based on each driver’s average finish in the previous four segments. Hard chargers will be moved to the front of the field, with back markers banished to the rear. Once the field is realigned, pit road will open for a mandatory, four-tire pit stop. The order in which the cars return to the track will determine the starting order for the final, 10-lap segment.
At its base, stock car racing has always been a simple sport. Line `em up, drop the rag and reward the man (or woman) who busts their way to the top of the heap in time to take the checkered flag first.
Any format that rewards going slow is a faulty format, and any system that rewards lollygagging over speed is a fool’s errand.
Congratulations to NASCAR on finally seeing the light, once again.