The night seemed perfect. The glitz was all in place. The fireworks were breath taking. The excitement was palpable. The anticipation was not only visible but audible. There were two things on everyone’s mind; would Dale Earnhardt Jr be in the All Star race? Would the race be as bold as the fireworks in the pre-race show? The answer was a long drawn out one that left most unsatisfied with both answers.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]The All Star race was hyped and billed as the most exciting race under the lights. Here was where the true determination and aggression of NASCAR’s finest would be seen. There were commercials that depicted it as a western gun fight and show down with NASCAR’s Mike Helton as the Sheriff quickly appearing to maintain law and order. What it was, was overly complicated, strung out follow the leader racing that, unlike other races this year, didn’t even have a good ending.
The Showdown although starting out with a bang, lost its fizzle early. It was dominated by David Regan and Brad Keselowski. There was never much doubt as to who the winner would be with Regan setting the fastest time in either section in qualifying; the questions were who would be second, would Dale Jr race his way in, who would be the fan vote.
Keselowski showed dominance in his Miller Lite Dodge from the drop of the green flag. He had speed and handling and showed the slicing dicing skills of an experienced chef at the cutting block. He would lead the final segment until the final lap when Ragan would resume the lead. The two held a dominating distance over third place Marcos Ambrose. Earnhardt Jr would struggle through the event finishing a disappointing 6th.
The driver’s introductions for the All Star Race were bright and inviting. With flashing lights and smoke and fireworks each driver and his team were introduced to the crowd. Each team had items that were thrown out to the crowd as they were cheered on to pit road. Smiles and fan interactions were in abundance with the exception of Denny Hamlin who never looked at the crowd. He walked over and shook hands with each of his crew and then walked to pit road in the group.
When the fan vote was announced by all three Miss Sprint Cup’s, who had campaigned heavily for Brian Vickers and leaked information that the “obvious choice” was not in fact leading the vote, the noise level was deafening. Dale Earnhardt Jr would in fact compete in the All Star Race thanks to the fans. Earnhardt took a moment to thank not only his fans but all the fans that voted in the competition. As well as giving his own fans a shout out on the radio before the beginning of the race.
Sprint announced that the voting exceeded 2 million votes this year. The most of any year since the fan votes inception. Despite early reports, Darrell Waltrip said that Earnhardt had indeed won by a landslide.
Pole position for the All Star race was won by Kyle Busch on Friday evening, with Clint Bowyer starting on the outside front row. The first pit stall however would be selected by the winner of the pit crew challenge which was Denny Hamlin’s number 11 Fed Ex Toyota crew.
The All Star race was hyped to the hilt. Track President Marcus Smith offered to pay any fines for fighting that might be incurred. The All Star race could have been an exciting and breath taking event if the drivers had been willing to push the issue of racing. In the end they were not.
The race was an over structured, over complicated, and a too long glorified test session for the Coca Cola 600. Even the last 10 laps showed to be a strung out follow the leader affair. The most excitement came after the race when winner Carl Edwards destroyed the race winning car sliding through the grass and hitting a man hole cover and basically tearing the whole right front corner and suspension out from under the car.
Second place driver Kyle Busch who scored his highest finish in his All Star Race career stated, “Sorry we didn’t give you any scoop (or) drama,” he said. Busch admitted the race was “tame”. The trend seems to have begun in 2008 when the rule changes to the event began in earnest leading us to the current 100 lap structure that encourages follow the leader type racing. With the final 10 laps being the source of excitement. But this year even that was missing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished a disappointing 14th in the race, suggested on Friday, that a simpler shorter format might guarantee more excitement for the fans. He suggested that adding other events on the bill would ensure that the fans got their money’s worth for the price of the ticket. Not a bad thought. It would certainly be better than keeping track of how many laps, how many segments, when are the mandatory pit stops, when can you add fuel, how many tires do you have to take. and when is the break.
The All Star Race was a true gauge of the status of the competition in our sport today. It is a gauge as to why the fan base is decreasing on a regular basis. Between the poor racing, the commentators on the TV broadcast, the endless hollow promises, our sport has reached a crisis level. What has brought us here? Lots of things the biggest is money. And not the struggling economy, this started long before that. It began with greed. With a series sponsor that refused to allow competing companies to sponsor competitors. It was compounded by a series that wanted to govern who had a sponsor and what that sponsor’s product was. It was an unaccommodating series that signaled the end of support from companies like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. It was only last year that GT Vodka came into the Nationwide series on a limited schedule with JR. Motorsports.
But perhaps the truest blow to the sport and its competitive ability came in 2008 when NASCAR eliminated testing. NASCAR eliminated testing at the request of the car owners when the economy tanked in 2007 on the claim that it would save them money. Truth is they replaced it with computer simulation programs and simulation engineers all of which in the long run probably cost at least as much as the testing did without the same results.
1989 Winston Cup Champion, Rusty Wallace described the benefits of testing as “You can take the cars out there and unbolt the suspension and try different things and tune the car up and get it ready for that track. Your driver is out there practicing and honing their skills.” Wallace stated that the elimination of testing was the biggest blow to the sport in his opinion.
When you look at the competition we are seeing week in and week out, and compare it to the description he gave is it any wonder we see cars that are evil and ill handling? Champions that are not competitive. Multiple part failures under stress. Tire compounds that are not compatible to track surfaces. If the teams were testing even on a limited basis, Wallace suggested 10 test sessions a year, we wouldn’t be seeing these kinds of issues.
There is not a single driver in the Cup/Nationwide field that has not earned his way there. There is not a champion in the field now or ever who did not earn that championship with his abilities behind the wheel. And yet week after week we are asking the question what happened? How did a team with major factory support have brake failure 3 weeks in a row? How does a team with major factory support suffer right front tire failures 4 weeks in a row? These drivers both had won championships. They were not rookies. A Champion of the series relegated to the position of an also ran in a car that has factory support. A driver with 18 victories in the sport who seemingly could not get out of his own way for over 2 years? These men did not suddenly lose the ability to drive a race car. The companies that created the parts and pieces didn’t suddenly forget how or what they were doing. Teams that have been in the sport for several years didn’t suddenly forget how to build race cars.
The COT is part of the issue. It came on the scene full time in 2008. The same time we did away with testing. It was then we began seeing multiple race failures. We replaced competitive motorsports with safety and series control. Now don’t misunderstand me, I would not trade the safety factors of this car for the old car. Not in a million years. Those factors have saved drivers lives as recently as the truck race at Dover and the cup race at Richmond. But the competitive element has to be there as well.
Fans complain about Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch winning so many races and championships. The two of them are probably two of the most talented drivers on the circuit. The new car came easy for them. But if testing were again allowed, you would see more drivers win and compete for the win. You would see more confidence in the car from drivers in heavy traffic situations. You wouldn’t be seeing the All Star race used as a test session for the Coca Cola 600.
This problem is only going to grow when the new COT is introduced in 2013. We will simply start the learning curve over again. With no testing and no experience in and with the car the problem will compound on itself yet again.
Brian France, stated this past week that NASCAR needs Dale Jr to win to survive. And although it would be awesome to see Dale Jr in victory lane again, if for no other reason to silence the haters and the nay sayers, what NASCAR needs in order to survive is to bring back testing of the cars on the tracks they are going to race on. What NASCAR needs if it is to survive is to return to it’s competitive roots where we have more than two cars competing for the win. With the new points system and the ramifications of DNF’s, it seems only fair to level the playing field and give the drivers and teams back the foundations that they need to put on the show that made NASCAR a household name.
The All Star race was like a $250,000 dollar fireworks display that when the switch was thrown the whole thing fizzled. The disappointment and the let down will have far reaching effects. Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out that the way to slow the hemorrhage is to go back to doing what they do best, Having 42 cars all going fast and turning left.
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Congratulations to Kyle Busch on his Camping World truck series win on Friday night. It was a perfect illustration of why you never give up until the checkered flag waves.
Congratulations to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on his first career Nationwide Series Win at Iowa. Welcome to the very exclusive club of talented drivers that have won before you.
Congratulations to David Ragan on his Showdown win, and to Carl Edwards on his All Star Win. Conspiracy theorists please hush. The man crossed the line first. The win belongs to him until John Darby and Robin Pemberton say otherwise.
Congratulations to Denny Hamlin’s Fed Ex team on their victory in the pit crew challenge. It was an awesome competition the best of the entire weekend in my opinion.
Congratulations to Dale Jr. and his Jr. Nation on their victory in the fan vote. Remember always the parable of the sticks. Stand together and you can not be broken. Step apart and you will fail.
That said, to all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.