CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — The lore of NASCAR’s annual All-Star race has been building since 1987, when Dale Earnhardt’s “pass in the grass” gave him the victory.
That exciting third installment of the All-Star race was followed by plenty of stellar finishes — Rusty Wallace’s 1989 victory over a spinning Darrell Waltrip in a race dubbed “The Tide Slide,” or Davey Allison’s 1992 door-to-door battle with Kyle Petty that sent Allison to the hospital after he took the checkered flag on “One Hot Night.”
But the reality is those kinds of finishes don’t happen very often anymore.
In fact, the All-Star race has been a bit of a dud for almost 10 years now.
There’s been a handful of highlights, mainly involving Kyle Busch, and mostly for the off-track drama created by on-track incidents.
Busch and big brother Kurt wrecked each other in 2007 racing for position, and it triggered a feud that still isn’t completely healed. They went six months without speaking, finally breaking the ice when their grandmother requested a peace agreement for Thanksgiving dinner.
In 2010, Kyle Busch tried to pass teammate Denny Hamlin for the lead when Hamlin threw a block that sent Busch into the wall. A livid Busch radioed his team he was “going to kill” Hamlin after the race.
“I had this race won! It was won!” he screamed.
Aside from that kind of drama, only the most rabid fans can remember many of the ho-hum finishes of the last decade. Jimmie Johnson has won four of the last 12, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick both have victories in that same stretch, and all three should be among the most dominant drivers in Saturday night’s running at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So what’s the problem with the All-Star race?
For starters, there’s nothing really “all-star” about the event. This year’s running is a 110-lap affair with probably 20 drivers competing — a little less than half the regular, 43-car field running what’s in essence just a shortened version of any other race on a mile-and-a-half track.
Sure, the event is divided into segments and concludes with a 10-lap sprint to the finish for the $1 million prize.
Only problem? Time and time again the current rules package has shown that, barring a late caution or fluke finish, the driver that wins the restart will win the race. Clean air means everything in NASCAR, and 10 laps just aren’t enough for a driver to chase down the leader.
Oh, and that part about laying it all out on the line for the chance to win the big prize? Well, $1 million doesn’t mean the same to today’s crop of drivers as it did when the race debuted in 1985. Drivers aren’t racing anymore to buy groceries or tires or to pay the travel to the next week’s race.
A lack of true rivalries in the sport leaves little incentive for a driver to take many risks for a $1 million prize, a payout the team owner is taking at least 40 percent from. Nobody wants to tear up equipment or wreck someone in a meaningless race.
Some suggestions to improve the race:
— Put more money on the line. Dangle a prize out there that might actually entice a driver. Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith firmly believes the $1 million to the winner — the highest payout in any NASCAR event — is still a meaningful payday. But as he was surrounded last week by the money in neatly wrapped bundles, Smith admitted he’d double the prize to $2 million if NASCAR ran the race with no rules for car setups.
— Smith’s idea of not using a rule package is actually a strong draw for the competitors and fans. It would put some ingenuity and creativity into car design and setup, and for one race legalize any attempts to, ahem, cheat and get outside of NASCAR’s current box. When Smith ran the idea past Chad Knaus, the six-time championship winning crew chief suggested keeping the decision secret until 48 hours before the track opened. Giving them too much notice would give too much creative time.
— Scrap the Showdown, the race where drivers can transfer into the main event. Turn it into heat races, which have proved to be wildly popular among fans when used in the Truck Series at Eldora Speedway.
— Drop the pole-sitter to the rear of the field. If that driver comes back to win, the payout increases to $5 million.
— Move the track around to different venues. There would be far more contact if the race was run on a short track or road course, but passing is difficult on the intermediate tracks, and contact is at a minimum when there’s nothing significant on the line.
— Open the gates to the public, no admission charged. It’s risky for the promoter, but they could ban coolers this one race and try to recoup some of the losses at the concession stands. A full track would give the event an energy it currently lacks.
— If nothing else works, dangle some sort of postseason incentive to the winner. An automatic bid into the Chase is a stretch, but bonus points might not be a bad idea.
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