Despite the latest in a series of format tweaks – one that re-aligned drivers for a decisive final pit stop based on their average finish in a series of four, 20-lap segments – the final, 10-lap showdown featured little of the side-by-side racing that brings fans to their feet. Compounding the situation was a FOX television graphic that erroneously ranked Johnson 11th prior to the race’s final, four-tire pit stop, rather than fourth. That miscue triggered a tsunami of anti-Jimmie internet rhetoric, and when Johnson’s newly revamped pit crew sent him back to the track in second place, the misinformed din grew exponentially louder.
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion did his job from there, driving away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne on the final restart to claim his second consecutive All Star victory and his record fourth of all time, breaking a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
"People just want to hate," said Johnson of the faux controversy. “I'm just lucky (and) NASCAR rigs the races. Whatever (the fans) want to believe. I'm going home with a cool trophy and a big check and we all really know what happened. So, whatever."
He admitted, however, that NASCAR’s All Star format needs more work.
"I really don't know what to do at this point," said Johnson. "(In the first) four segments, there were a lot of guys on different strategies that made for exciting racing. (But when) you're on a 1.5-mile track with a 10-lap shootout (at the end), your options are limited to create multiple passes for the win."
Since CMS was repaved in 2006, competition has suffered. High speeds, increased grip and minimal tire wear have led to a dearth of side-by-side racing, and in the All Star Race, mandatory caution flags every 20 laps make it virtually impossible for creative crew chiefs to concoct strategy twists.
"You know when the cautions are coming, so you can sit back and strategize,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus afterward. “In a normal race, you have no idea what's going to happen.”
He suggested that if NASCAR really wants to infuse some excitement into the All Star Race, it may be time for a softer tire.
"When tires fall off, you're going to start to see some passing,” said Knaus. “I think it could be very exciting to see who plays the tire strategy. I don't foresee it, because Goodyear is in a tough spot. They have to build a tire that's going to last. I'm just saying it would make it exciting, because the only way you're going to get passing is to have tire wear."
Knaus’ point is valid and deserves serious consideration. Ultimately, however, the All Star Race will continue to suffer until NASCAR stops trying to micromanage its way to unpredictability.
Short, 20-lap segments may sound exciting on paper, but what works at your local Saturday night short track does not necessarily work at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Shorter races provide little or no time for back markers to fight their way forward. They eliminate virtually all pit road strategy, and stop the action before tire wear and fuel consumption have been allowed to impact handling.
Everyone took the green flag with their best, short-run setup Saturday night, and the checkered flag flew before anything had time to change.
With so many segments – and so many stoppages, realignments and adjustments in between – we spent more time preparing to race Saturday night than we did actually racing. “Hurry up and race,” seemed to be NASCAR’s All Star message, “because we’ll be stopping you again in a minute.”
It’s time for NASCAR to dispense with the gimmicks and get back to what it does best; racing. Run a pair of 20-lap sprints on gumball-soft tires, then use the “Best Average Finish” criteria to line up a final, 100-lap Dash For Cash.
Let creative crew chiefs like Knaus decide when (and if) to pit, rather than dictating the timing and degree of every adjustment.
Let talented drivers like Johnson, Kahne and the Busch Brothers do what they do best; wrestling race cars that fall off dramatically over the course of a fuel run.
And most important of all, don’t let FOX do the math.