Another NASCAR All-Star Race. Another kitchen sink thrown at one of the sport’s more controversial races to spice it up. Is it finally the make-or-break moment for an event run at the same track since 1987?
This year, the sport’s mid-May exhibition at Charlotte Motor Speedway comes armed with a new handling package designed to spice up competition. Restrictor plates will be paired with aero ducts, a six-inch-high spoiler with two 12-inch ears at the edges, and a splitter from an older version of this car (2014).
This setup has been used in the sport’s XFINITY Series with eye-opening results. Their race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last July produced a race-high 16 lead changes and passing throughout the field. Winner William Byron took the checkered flag by just .108 seconds in an outcome in doubt through the final turns.
NASCAR hopes that magic translates to its hometown oval, just a few miles from where most teams are based in the Charlotte area. This 1.5-miler, once the cornerstone of the sport’s intermediate tracks, is now so difficult to spur side-by-side competition its fall race has been turned into a road course. A trendsetting track molded in the form of its old freewheeling GM, Humpy Wheeler, is now the poster child for all that’s wrong with cookie-cutter racetracks.
From a “levigation” project that backfired to a May 2016 Coca-Cola 600 in which Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps, CMS has been through its share of criticism. There was the fall 2005 event where tires would blow every 20 laps; only one of the last five races have featured more than 20 lead changes.
But it’s the All-Star Race that tends to be the punching bag in the center of CMS putridity. An event that helped build the sport in the 1990s is now considered the epicenter of all that went wrong. Some of that, unfortunately, comes from unrealistic expectations. A legendary 1992 finish in which Dale Earnhardt got spun, then Davey Allison won the race, coming from behind before being punted across the finish line, is a once-in-a-lifetime event. You’re not going to get that every year.
But you also need some sort of memorable moment. They haven’t been there. The typical pattern lately has been whoever wins the double-file restart pulls away, takes control of the race and... that’s all she wrote. Last year’s race featured three stage breaks and three lead changes. Just once this decade has there been a pass for the lead in the final five laps. That’s with an event that automatically bunched up the field for a 10-lap final stage.
At least there’s been a lot of different names up front. But 10 winners in the last 11 All-Star Races haven’t spurred interest. Almost every format in the history of racing, from eliminations to inversions hasn’t sparked competition. Pit strategy has helped jumble the field at times but changing tires is not what fans tune in for. It’s banging fenders.
The end result has often been the lowest-rated race of the year. That’s a difficult sell to have just days after a Saturday night race at Kansas Speedway produced the lowest-rated Nielsen rating for the sport since 2000. (Rain delays excluded) Some have even chatted about eliminating the All-Star Race altogether (an idea I vehemently disagree with).
Yet despite those sagging numbers, this weekend offers hope. If this package clicks, leading to a nail-biting finish you could see it used almost certainly in 2019 at intermediate ovals. (Perhaps sooner.) There’s no place to go but up for a series who has continued to struggle in 2018. Experimenting during this exhibition is a good thing.
But if it fails? I’d say the race at CMS has run its course. What more can you do? If you can’t even trust the place to run two points-paying oval races for you anymore, why keep a boring race runfor the fans there? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?
Teams desperately need the down time at home during a grueling 36-race regular season schedule. OK, well Bristol and Martinsville offer two compelling short tracks close to home. They offer an opportunity to produce a race’s worth of memories. Maybe even the road course is an option.
But for now, what was billed as "One Wild Night" back in the 1990s has one last shot to produce a decent product. Everyone involved in the sport is hoping there’s finally a happy ending.
34th Monster Energy All-Star Race
Time: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
A fifth win by Harvick this season at Kansas has him racing toward NASCAR history. He’s on pace for 15 wins, a total that would shatter the modern era record of 13 set twice (Jeff Gordon, 1998 and Richard Petty, 1975). He’s also on pace for an eye-popping 27 top-5 finishes and has led 820 laps so far. The next two drivers on the list combined, both contenders in their own right (Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney) have led 916.
Who’s at the Back: Matt Kenseth
The much-anticipated return of Kenseth at Kansas was a battle of man versus machine. You know the 46-year-old former champion can get the job done; the problem is Roush Fenway Racing’s equipment can’t give him fast enough cars to contend. Kenseth struggled around 25th most of the night, losing a lap on track before a late crash mercifully ended his comeback in 36th place. Long-term, I expect him to produce in this Ford in a way Trevor Bayne, the man he’s slowly replacing, has not. But this battle to bring RFR back to respectability is not an instant fix.
Rear windows are all the rage this week. Kyle Larson was the latest to receive a 20-point deduction by NASCAR for a rear window brace that failed post-race inspection. That part of Larson’s car was under scrutiny for most of the Kansas event; he led 101 laps and was the only Chevrolet to finish inside the top 10 but the piece looked visibly “off” on the racetrack.
The driver said post-race he had suffered window damage as part of a late-race wreck with Ryan Blaney but NASCAR officials felt differently. The consequences were costly: $50,000 for crew chief Chad Johnston, the loss of car chief David Bryant for two events along with those 20 driver (and owner) points. It was originally thought Bryant would be suspended for the All-Star Race as well but he’s eligible to work as it’s a non-points NASCAR event.
VP of Competition Scott Miller, on the heels of a third rear window penalty in the past two races, threatened a 40-point deduction and a three-race car chief suspension for the next offender.
Justin Marks was announced as a road course driver for Premium Motorsports. Marks will drive their No. 15 in the races at Sonoma and the roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway this fall. Sponsorship will come from Sufferfest Beer Company for at least the race at Sonoma.
Kaz Grala is out of a ride in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series. JGL Racing released one of the sport’s young development drivers this week due to a lack of sponsorship. Sadly, as we’ve seen all too often in NASCAR these days JGL immediately suspended operations of the No. 24 team altogether.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Race won by Chevrolet and its new Camaro model this season: February’s Daytona 500. In that race, Austin Dillonled just the final lap.
Nielsen rating for Saturday night’s NASCAR race at Kansas on FOX Sports 1. That was the lowest for any non-rain delayed Cup Series event since at least 2000. The sport signed its first national TV contract for all 36 races prior to the 2001 season.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are tied with 21/5 odds as of this writing (how often do you see that?!) with four drivers tied behind them at 8/1.
What I Think
Harvick. Harvick. Harvick. It’s hard to bet against the No. 4 car right now although I do think NASCAR’s plate package will lead to one of the better All-Star Races we’ve seen in quite some time.
— 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.