It’s a shame that a race that used to be one of the most anticipated events on the Sprint Cup calendar has evolved into such a snooze-fest.
The final segment of Saturday’s event was only 10 laps long, but by the time those 10 laps were up, Johnson was already two seconds clear of the field.
And Saturday’s anticlimactic finish was hardly an isolated incident. In the past eight All-Star races, there has been only one pass for the lead in the final five laps of the race. That happened back in 2009 when Tony Stewart got around Matt Kenseth to earn a million-dollar payday.
One of the biggest problems with the All-Star race is that it’s being run on a mile-and-a-half track. Nothing boosts the odds of a NASCAR race being boring like a mile-and-a-half layout, yet the All-Star race is staged in Charlotte every year.
It’s amazing that race fans keep showing up to watch the thing. Every year, the All-Star race is billed as a fender-bashing dash for cash. Rules are changed, stipulations added, and yet it always seems to end with one of the lead cars getting out into clean air on the final restart and setting sail.
The quickest fix to the problem would be to move the race out of Charlotte, preferably to a rotation of tracks that have a proven record of producing good racing. My list of tracks would include Bristol Motor Speedway, Rockingham, Darlington, Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. Each track would host once every five years, and the odds of a boring race would be slim.
But Saturday night’s race illustrated a much larger problem in the sport, one that dwarfs the issue of putting on a good All-Star race. All-star games in all professional sports have lost their luster over the years, and it’s not that big of a deal in most cases. The NFL is the most popular sport in America, but the league puts on the most pointless star-studded exhibition of any of them and nobody seems to be losing any sleep over it.
But for NASCAR, Saturday’s race showed just how much trouble the sport is in. Even with so many bells and whistles, gimmicks and gizmos, there was nothing anyone could do to make the race exciting to watch.
Next week, all the mandatory cautions and pit-stop trickery will be gone, leaving a stark, 600-lap reminder of just how mind-numbing stock car racing has become in this day and age. All of NASCAR’s micromanaging has left us with a field of cars that all go about the same speed, making passing next to impossible.
That turns what used to be racing into a high-speed parade of glorified billboards on wheels. So there’s the bad news. And here’s the worse news: There is no easy fix to the problem thanks to NASCAR’s lack of foresight when the track-building frenzy hit its peak in the 1990s.
Instead of adding short tracks, road courses or quirky one-mile ovals around the country, track builders opted almost exclusively to build cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half tracks. Texas, Las Vegas, Chicagoland and Kansas all fit that mold, and the 2-mile layout in California hasn’t provided much excitement over the years either.
So what happened over the course of two decades is that NASCAR lost its brand identity, morphing into an engineering-dominated sport that often resembles IndyCar Lite. And now that all these tracks have been built and are on the Cup schedule, there is no going back.
The only hope at this point is that NASCAR throws in the towel and releases the chokehold it has put on innovation within the sport in the past decade. If cars start moving at different speeds again, passing will once again be possible.
Chad Knaus also brought up an interesting idea after helping Johnson to his fourth career All-Star victory on Saturday. Goodyear could start bringing a variety of tire combinations to each race, giving drivers and crew chiefs the option of using harder tires with less grip and less falloff, or softer tires that have a lot of grip but will have a steep falloff after 10 laps or so.
Different strategy calls would almost certainly lead to passing in the final laps of each race. Either way, something has got to be done if NASCAR hopes to survive in the 21st century.
With 900 channels on most television sets, most folks aren’t likely to keep the dial on a show with no drama for sale.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.