Twenty-five years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since I was a wide-eyed 11-year-old, watching the last lap of the most famous All-Star Race in NASCAR history unfold on television.
It was then the race under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway took on new meaning. Dale Earnhardt Sr., The Intimidator, was busy getting stalked by Kyle Petty down the backstretch. Heading into turn 3, Earnhardt’s No. 3 suddenly couldn’t handle the changing air; he got loose and spun out in front of the field.
Petty appeared to be home free; it was the son of The King taking a step forward in his career. Only... wait? Who’s that coming in the rear-view mirror? Davey Allison’s No. 28 Ford stormed up from behind. On the inside, he made a surprise power move, passing Petty only to be spun just past the start/finish line. Allison wound up with the trophy, paying a price in the process (concussion, bruised lung) but the crowd?
They couldn’t stop cheering.
It was one of the most dramatic, exciting endings in the sport’s long history. Perhaps nothing other than the 1979 Daytona 500 was more influential in winning fans over during the sport’s era of growth. By then, I had been hooked for a few years; that shower of sparks cemented my loyalty.
Problem is, ever since CMS has been searching for a redo of that magic moment, the once-in-a-generation YouTube classic to keep fans in their seats. Sadly, they haven’t quite delivered. Sure, plenty of the All-Star Races in the ‘90s came close to that Allison finish but couldn’t replicate it.
By the time this century beckoned, track changes in the form of levigation, an ill-conceived experiment on the track’s surface combined with the dreaded aero push, cut back quality competition throughout the field. The past decade has seen ratings tank in this event long before the rest of the tracks suffered through the same decline.
In its defense, NASCAR has truly tried everything. They’ve fiddled with the rules so much it would take pages to describe how much the format has changed over the past 15 years. They’ve debuted new handling packages, opened the rulebook for crew chiefs, and pushed elimination-style segments. But none of it was able to stop some All-Star events that have resulted in single-file parades at the front of the field. Ones where restarts determine the winner over the course of two turns, causing the leader to scoot away and fans to, well, take a nap.
There’s also the dilution of the All-Star field itself. Half the competitors of the 40 who compete each week will qualify for the main event Saturday night. Compare that to the fractions of the rosters in stick-and-ball sports leagues – MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL – select for “special” inclusion. If the Pro Bowl is suffering with its best athletes, it’s no surprise NASCAR is in the same boat with a bloated All-Star field.
Plenty of solutions have been offered. A move to Bristol or another short track has been strongly suggested but Charlotte is the teams’ home base. Asking them to travel in this crazy schedule, one where 38 weeks out of the year they’re running a race, seems a bit extraneous.
So we’ll slog it out Saturday night in Charlotte, under a new set of rules NASCAR again hopes will make it impossible for a boring race. There’s eliminations involved, average finish in each segment factoring into the final 10 laps for $1 million dollars. That’ll push people to run each and every lap at 110 percent. Add in different tire compounds, producing different speeds along with pit strategy and it’s hard to screw up.
At some point, the law of averages dictates we’ll have a 1992-type ending at Charlotte once again. The sport just needs to have it happen sooner rather than later. A quarter of a century is a really, really long time in between memorable All-Star Races.
Monster Energy Open & Monster Energy All-Star Race
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex finally conquered his demons at Kansas, a track where he posted 500 laps led and two runner-up finishes but no wins until last weekend. Leading 104 laps, he scooted by the short-run success of Ryan Blaney in a wild finish to score his second win of the 2017 season. That puts him in a tie with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most on the circuit but it’s been Truex who’s flashed more consistency this year. Take away a crash at Talladega, the most unpredictable track on the circuit and he has no result worse than 16th.
Who’s at the Back: Danica Patrick
For Danica, it’s hard to see any light in a dark 2017 to this point. She was a part of a major wreck involving Aric Almirola and Joey Logano at Kansas, one that left her shaken up. Logano’s No. 22 pummeled Patrick’s No. 10 when a part broke on his Ford; she was an innocent victim from that point on, a top-10 finish taken from her grasp.
But no one got the worst of it more than Almirola, who needed safety officials to cut him out of the No. 43 car. While Almirola was on his way to the hospital, suffering a broken back, Patrick was scrutinized for post-race comments that focused more on her sorry season than the condition of one of her competitors. Personally, I feel like people needed to give the poor woman a break – she had just hit the wall at 200 mph – but that hasn’t stopped the public commotion. Perhaps more importantly, Patrick has dropped to 33rd in points – low enough that under NASCAR rules she wouldn’t make the playoffs even with a surprise win later in the season.
Will she be racing in 2018? Those same post-race comments seemed to call that into question. That’s how frustrating a season it’s been for her; 11 starts, five DNFs, and a lost sponsor in Nature’s Bakery are just the tip of the iceberg.
Aric Almirola’s injury, one of the most serious suffered in NASCAR the last few years. is a compression fracture of the T5 vertebra. He’ll be out several weeks with Regan Smith filling in for him at Charlotte’s All-Star Weekend. Almirola, who was contending for a playoff spot, technically loses his ability to qualify the second he’s out of the car in next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. But, like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart in recent years, he could still get a waiver from NASCAR that’ll allow him to make it. Almirola would need to win a race upon his return and stay inside the top 30 in points.
As for Danica Patrick, the lawsuit between her owners, Stewart-Haas Racing, and former backer Nature’s Bakery, appears to be nearing a settlement. The money given will help her finish the season, one where she’s had to run with a patchwork of sponsors replacing the funding Bakery promised before pulling out of the deal.
Two sons of former NASCAR drivers, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, highlighted the NASCAR Next list for 2017-18 released this week. Both hope to be racing in the Truck Series full-time within the next few seasons to follow in the footsteps of fathers Jeff and David.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish of Aric Almirola this season, the best of his NASCAR career before getting hurt.
Finishing position for Carl Long at Kansas, his best since 2001 in the Cup Series. Saturday night was Long’s first race since 2009 after a faulty engine and resulting $200,000 fine put his racing career on the skids.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
So there’s not really a lot of contest surrounding the All-Star Race, the sport’s main exhibition other than the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash. There are a few drivers, though who stand out with All-Star Race performances. Kurt Busch has run top five in the last two All-Star Races while Dale Earnhardt Jr., still in need of a season-altering performance, has finished in similar position in two of the last three.
What are the rules they’ll be racing under? This year’s version of the race honors the 1992 edition that made the All-Star event so special. There are four segments of 20, 20, 20, and 10 laps. The winner of each of the first 20-lap stages will lock up a spot in the final 10 laps for a million dollars. The rest of the 10-car lineup will be set by average finish in those first three stages, meaning no one can lay back and expect to make it through.
Before that final segment, every driver will be given an option to pit. There are two sets of tires to choose from when they get there. One compound, called the “Option” clearly offers more grip. The catch is anyone who puts on this tire for the final 10 laps must start behind all drivers who choose the regular sets of Goodyears.
Sixteen drivers have already qualified for the race. The other four will come from the All-Star Open (winners of each of the three segments of that race) along with a fan vote. The fan vote advances one of the Open drivers remaining who hasn’t yet qualified for the main event.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. once again holds a slim lead in odds to win, just like last week at Kansas. He’s got 6/1 odds with Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson right behind at 13/2.
What I Think
I think Truex keeps his streak of good runs going. Dominant in the Coca-Cola 600 last year, he checks another one off the bucket list with a first career victory in NASCAR’s biggest exhibition. Now, will it be a fantastic finish? I will say this much: with this new rules package, you have to have better competition. Otherwise, you need to move the race out of Charlotte. Period.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.