It has all the ingredients to be the most compelling of any All-Star event.
While the NBA's, NFL's and NHL's games get criticized for lackadaisical play, there's no lack of intensity in NASCAR's All-Star Race; the Kyle Busch-Denny Hamlin run-in last year was proof of that. While there's something at stake in MLB's All-Star Game, there's a difference between playing for home-field advantage in the World Series and the knockdown, drag-out tension of racing for a $1 million payday.
"You just worry about trying to go fast and win," said Kasey Kahne, who won the event in 2008. "That's what makes it the All-Star race. That's what makes it the exciting weekend that it always is."
NASCAR's All-Star Race should be massive. It should be can't-miss. It should be the kind of racing that fans who complain about the passiveness of big-picture points racing get excited about. But the race that gave us the famous "Pass in the Grass," when Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott went toe-to-toe in 1987 back when it was called The Winston, instead has become a confusing pseudo test session for the following week's Coca-Cola 600.
But the good news is the All-Star race can be fixed ... and The Racing Fan has a few ideas about how to do it.
1. Ditch The Segments. Thanks to the constant tinkering, the 150-mile race is currently broken down into four segments. The first is 50 laps with a mandatory four-tire pit stop on Lap 25 and then there are two 20-lap runs, followed by a 10-minute break for adjustments. After that the field takes one lap behind the pace car before a four-tire pit stop. The order in which cars exit pit road determines how they'll line up for the 10-lap shootout.
Convoluted? Without question. The built-in breaks can put a major damper on the action and there would seem little reason to mandate pit stops; with the inherent intensity of running for this kind of money, there are going to be wrecks and there are going to be cautions.
The addition of the 10-lap finale was great; it guarantees the excitement of a green-white-checkered finish, but let's forget about basing the starting order on a team's ability to get off pit road. Give us a standard 90 laps, and then have the cars line up for the 10-lap sprint to the finish. It's a simplified approach that would keep the nail-biting aspect of the final run and lose the needless intermissions.
2. Give Fans The Voting Power. The only thing more confusing than explaining how this race is run is breaking down how many ways a driver can qualify. You can be a past series champion of the last 10 years, a winner of any of the last 10 All-Star races, a winner of any points event from last season or this season, finish first or second in the Sprint Showdown or, if all else fails, get in by fan vote.
Does that kind of criteria really give us an All-Star field? In the last four years, we've had the likes of Casey Mears in '10, (who filled in for Brian Vickers, a concept that is an entirely different problem), Sam Hornish Jr. ('09) and Johnny Sauter ('07) find their way into this event. No offense to Regan Smith, who qualified this season based on his win at Darlington on May 7, but is he more deserving of being an All-Star than Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Joey Logano, all of whom are banking on either the Showdown or fan vote to get in.
Of course the fan vote is a fail-safe guarantee that a driver the stature of Junior gets in -- he last won the All-Star race in '00, so his exemption is up -- but shouldn't the fans be the ones to set the entire lineup instead of providing a safety net? If the race is supposed to be about generating ratings, shouldn't NASCAR follow in the footsteps of MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL and let them decide who is an All-Star?
3. Rotate The Venue. This is Bruton Smith's party and it's highly unlikely Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s boss man would like to see it move away from his flagship track. But even the promoter extraordinaire would have a hard time arguing that it wouldn't be in NASCAR's best interest to spread the wealth, like it's done in every other major American sport.
They began running the race in 1985 and only once was it not run in Charlotte (in 1986, when it was in Atlanta). I know Charlotte is the home of NASCAR and it's where all the drivers live, so by having the event in their backyards, it allows them to have an additional week with their families. Plus, the Hall of Fame is in Charlotte and the induction is just 48 hours after the All-Star race, so having it there makes sense from a media coverage standpoint. But next season the HOF inductions are moving to January and it's not like Charlotte is lacking for events. With it already hosting two points races a year, why give Charlotte the All-Star race each and every season?
If the race is supposed to be about the fans, then shouldn't NASCAR be taking it to the fans by rotating tracks? Schedule it at a road course, a restrictor-plate track or a short track, but let's mix it up. It's the novelty of having an All-Star event at your local venue that sells tickets and increases local revenue, so why not switch venues and allow it to benefit different cities instead of just one?
4. Change The Channel. Nobody does NASCAR coverage better than SPEED Channel. Its documentary on Dale Earnhardt's death, The Day, was beyond moving, and NASCAR Race Hub has become appointment viewing. That being said, it's not the right stage for the All-Star Race..
In the first three years is in which SPEED carried the race, viewership averaged a 3.63 Nielsen Household Rating. But last season, when a SPEED representative said most of their marketing and advertising went toward pushing the inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that rating fell slightly to a 3.3.
As steady as SPEED's ratings may be, it's still only available in 80 million households, compared to 115 million for Fox, 113 million for ABC and 100 million for ESPN and TNT, the other networks that air NASCAR races. It may see a bump from last year's rating if Fox's early viewership is any indication. As detailed by Dustin Long of the Virginia Pilot (who is also an SI.com contributor), Fox's ratings heading into last week's race in Dover were up 19 percent in the key 18-34-year-old males demographic.
But the fact of the matter is that NASCAR's other television partners reach more viewers than SPEED does, and an event that's supposed to be a showcase should be in as many households as possible. But there's little hope of this one changing for at least a few years with SPEED holding the rights to the race until the current TV deal expires at the end of the '14 season.
Kurt Busch. This race is an absolute crap shoot, and with that uncertainty, isn't the guy who has owned the non-points events this season the most logical pick? Busch, who won the Shootout and one of the Duel races at Daytona, claimed last year's All-Star race and then went on to take the Coca-Cola 600 a week later. Doing that again this season would be no small feat, but first he'll make a bid at equaling Davey Allison, who with victories in 1991 and '92, is the only driver to win back-to-back All-Star races.