Joey Logano claimed the $1 million winner’s prize, outdueling sophomore phenom Kyle Larson in a late-race battle that saw Larson carom off the Turn One wall with less than two laps remaining. Unfortunately, the edge-of-your-seat finish did not make up for a series of procedural foul-ups that watered-down a planned, 13-lap finale and left drivers, teams, officials and fans alike confused over who led the race, who trailed and even who was on the lead lap.
The new format – brainchild of former series champion Brad Keselowski – required drivers to make a green-flag pit stop in the opening, 50-lap segment. And by the midway point of the run, all but one competitor had done so. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth remained on the track, however, trapping the balance of the field a lap down. Kenseth’s strategy unraveled when Jamie McMurray spun in Turn Two with less than four laps remaining, creating a caution period that prevented Kenseth from coming to pit road before the end of the segment. He was eventually penalized one lap by NASCAR, but race officials failed to allow the lap-down drivers to exercise the wave-around option to regain their lost lap.
"I didn't know what way was up,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr., speaking for virtually everyone. “Lap-down cars were pitting with lead-lap cars. Wave-around cars were up front and in the middle.”
“I don't know how in the hell we were scored a lap down after they stopped the 20 car,” said Tony Stewart. “It's the most screwed up All-Star Race I've ever been a part of. I'm glad it's my last one. I'm madder than hell because I don't understand how the hell they've officiated this, from start to finish."
NASCAR eventually got the running order correct, and all the lapped drivers utilized subsequent wave-around opportunities to regain their lead-lap status. But a planned, 13-lap final segment – with the front half of the field on old tires and the back half on new rubber – fizzled when a multi-car Segment Two crash eliminated a number of potential contenders. In the end, only Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch began the final segment on old rubber; far outnumbered and quickly gobbled-up by those allowed to install four fresh Goodyear Eagles.
"Hindsight is really easy,” said NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller afterward. “We didn't really have a mechanism (to correct the problem) in our race procedures.”
Unfortunately, there were signs of trouble Saturday night, even before the green flag flew. Despite two weeks of explanation, the vast majority of NASCAR fans remained thoroughly confused by the new All Star format.
“Too many rules,” they said. “Too many requirements, too many uses of the word `mandatory.’”
In addition, the blind draw that preceded the final, 13-lap dash actually encouraged teams to give less than their best effort. At least one Top-5 driver plummeted mysteriously backward in the final few laps of Saturday’s second segment; clearly attempting to fall out of the Top-11 and earn an up-front starting spot for the finale.
That’s not what fans pay to see.
NASCAR’s Miller admitted that the sanctioning body was unprepared for Kenseth’s strategic twist Saturday, saying, “We ran into a situation where our race procedure didn't give us the opportunity for a wave-around and it created a lot of confusion. It's very unfortunate that this situation cropped up and a lot of people walked away from here disappointed. We're disappointed, as well."
Speaking off the record, one All Star competitor said he believes NASCAR settled on its 2016 All Star format far too late to prepare for the event.
“They told us about it at Talladega,” he said. “A lot of us had concerns, but the race was already two weeks away. What were we supposed to do?”
Clearly, that late rollout left insufficient time for NASCAR to troubleshoot the process and anticipate the myriad ways that teams like Kenseth’s might attempt to manipulate the format to their own benefit. There’s no fixing it now, but NASCAR has plenty of time – 51 weeks – to get it right for next season, simplifying the process to emphasize racing, rather than rules.
Eliminating the word “mandatory” from the All-Star format should be Step One. Mandating pit stops reduces the number of available options and locks teams into a single strategic scenario. Remove the competitive handcuffs and let teams get creative again.
Step Two is to eliminate any rule, regulation or procedure that rewards going slowly. No more inverts, no more incentives for finishing in the back of the pack.
“Hammer down” should be the only phrase that pays.
There was plenty to like about Saturday night’s All Star Race. It – and the Sprint Showdown that preceded it – featured multiple passes for the lead and more side-by-side racing than we’ve seen in the last five All Star Races, combined.
“I don't know how you can get much more compelling racing than what we saw today,” said Keselowski afterward.
“The intent was really positive,” agreed Earnhardt. “The ideas were great. But the simpler we make it, the easier it is to follow. You just have to worry about rooting for your guy”
Junior had it right Saturday night, and NASCAR will do well to listen. When all else fails; simplify, simplify, simplify.
Any All Star format that cannot be explained to the masses in 20 seconds or less is a lousy format.
Sprint All Star Race 2017 needs to be more about racing and less about rules.