NASCAR made a number of changes in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race, hoping to ratchet-up competition and build suspense. The sanctioning body utilized the multi-segment format that has energized Cup racing this season, adding a single set of softer “Option Tires” to each crew chief’s arsenal in an effort to increase passing.
None of it worked.
The annual Monster Energy Open provided cause for optimism, with plenty of passing and side-by-side competition. Once the sun set and the track cooled, however, Charlotte Motor Speedway became a one-lane race track, with the dreaded “aero push” providing the race leader with a substantial – and apparently insurmountable – advantage.
Time after time, second-place drivers ran down the leader from 12-15 car lengths back, only to encounter dirty air and stall out within sight of the lead.
"You can't pass anywhere," said Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney, who earned his All-Star spot with a spellbinding drive in the earlier Monster Energy Open. "It's not great track conditions, to be honest with you."
Kyle Larson led wire-to-wire in the opening two segments and clearly had the fastest car. But he was unable to overcome a balky final pit stop that left him fourth at the start of the final, 10-lap sprint, fighting mightily to wrest the runner-up position away from Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, a country mile behind winner Kyle Busch.
|Good night for Kyle, bad night for fans.|
"I think we had the car to be the winner," said Larson afterward. "(But) you've got to be perfect to win a Cup race. I knew being the leader off pit road was going to be the big thing. When I could tell that the rear changer wasn't around nearly as fast as the front, I knew we were in trouble."
While failing to spark the kind of side-by-side racing many had hoped for, Goodyear’s new “Option Tire” at least offered hope for the future. None of the 10 surviving teams utilized the tires in the final, 10-lap stage, deciding that the 3-5/10ths of a second per lap speed advantage they offered was not enough to overcome a back-of-the-pack starting spot.
"There's no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show," admitted Johnson after the race. "I think Charlotte Motor Speedway works as hard as they possibly can put on a great show. They're open minded to any and every idea… (but) we all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can't pass running the same speed. The damn rule book is too thick. There's too much going on.”
“Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing,” he said. “When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do (and) we can't pass as easily, we have to logically look at it and say, 'Hey, we're all going the same speed, no wonder we can't pass.’”
"I have an opinion, but I don't have the answer."
|Not a good enough option.|
In the weeks leading up to the race, Goodyear predicted a 3-5/10ths of a second speed advantage for its new “Option Tire.” Saturday night, however, they were good for only about half that.
"I don't think Goodyear hit the tire very well," said Brad Keselowski. "They missed pretty big. The tire was supposed to be much faster."
While they’re at it, perhaps they should consider moving the All-Star event back to the heat of the day, eschewing a prime-time TV audience in favor of compelling racing on a hot, greasy race track.
Or perhaps it’s finally time to heed the cries of those who lobby for a traveling All-Star Race, taking the event “on the road” to venues that can provide a better, more exciting race than the competitively challenged CMS oval.
Sadly, none of those changes can be made in time for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600; a race that was dominated a year ago by Martin Truex, Jr., who used a perfect race car and the aerodynamic edge all leaders enjoy to lead 392 of the race’s 400 laps.
With a month of wildly competitive point-counting events in the rearview window, the last thing NASCAR needs at this point is another “No Doze 600.”
Based on what we say Saturday night, however, that may be what we’re in for.