Is this any way to run a major league racing series? NASCAR, which has been very successful this year with its new low downforce aerodynamics package, used a new race rules package for its Sprint All-Star Race and the results were mixed at best.
The good news: the Sprint All-Star Race was one of the more exciting in the long history of a variety of formats used to spice up the action in an exhibition race where no points are awarded. That was thanks to the new low downforce package, which included an experiment in this race to reduce it further.
The other news: many drivers and fans spent much of the Sprint All-Star Race confused about how suddenly nine drivers got a lap down.
The race was run in three segments consisting of two 50-lap sprints, each with a required pit stop, and a final 13-lap sprint. The final segment generated a battle between Joey Logano and Kyle Larson that was one of the more memorable finishes in the 25-year history of running the race under the lights at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was consistent with other races this year where overtaking was made possible by the low downforce rules.
But afterward, NASCAR's senior vice president of competition, Scott Miller, more or less apologized to members of the media and indirectly to drivers and fans for the confusion that started at the conclusion of the first 50-lap segment.
The trouble started when Matt Kenseth's crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, left him on the track too long before taking the required pit stop in the first 50-lap segment. When a caution flag waved for Jamie McMurray's incident with three laps remaining, the pits were closed and Kenseth was the leader because he had not yet stopped and he had nine lapped cars behind him. The 50-lap segment ended before the pits were open, prohibiting Kenseth from pitting, trapping the nine drivers.
"We had obviously a format that we've never done before," Miller told media members at the NASCAR hauler. "We worked diligently and tried to come up with every scenario and an answer for every scenario that might crop up.
"This is not something we do every day, this type of race. We ran into a situation where our race procedures didn't give us the opportunity for a wave around. It created a lot of confusion and it's something if we continue on with this format we have to look at. You have to expect that certain circumstances are going to happen in this type of racing. We had one crop up (Saturday night) that maybe we could have been more ready for."
Was the commotion and confusion worth it? The format generated a lot of excitement and that's a good thing. Miller hinted the format could be tweaked and it would be wise enough not to throw it out despite the troubled debut.
Up until the Kenseth-Ratcliff affair, the opening segment saw different and interesting pit strategies. The random drawing to determine how many drivers on the lead lap had to pit before the final segment and how many had to run the last 13 laps on worn tires helped generate the compelling finish. Winner Logano chasing down and passing leader Larson made for an extraordinary result on the 1.5-mile track, where passing is usually at a premium and rarely occurs with the checkered flag in sight.
Larson, who hit the wall due to over-exertion after Logano passed him with two laps to go, said the Penske Racing driver "raced me clean" and had no complaints.
"He took the air off of me a couple of times, which is cool, and he did a fabulous job of side-drafting me coming down the front straight," Larson said.
All was not lost for the driver of Chip Ganassi's Chevy, who scored his first victory in a Sprint Cup car earlier on Saturday by narrowly edging Chase Elliott in one of the preliminary qualifying races.
There was a lot of bellyaching from drivers who were put a lap down. (The list of lapped drivers included Kenseth, who was given a one-lap penalty for not pitting in the opening segment.) The complaining drivers had good reason.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first of the lapped cars and got the Lucky Dog award prior to the start of the second 50-lap segment and eventually finished third. So the lapped drivers were not necessarily out of contention -- except for the fact they were scored a lap down.
"NASCAR did make sure all the lineups were correct before we went back to green," Earnhardt said. "So you can't really complain about that too much. It was just an unorthodox way of doing it. I don't know. I think they ran into some scenarios (Saturday night) that they didn't really anticipate and got caught off guard. I think (Kenseth) obviously not pitting, however that worked out, that threw them for a loop and everybody was confused from that minute on."
Kenseth counted himself among the confused.
Tony Stewart, one of those who were lapped, got caught in a multi-car accident at the rear of the pack one lap after the restart for the second 50-lap segment. His Chevy suffered two impacts, which apparently did not cause his still recovering back any problems. Stewart, who will retired from driving at season's end, declared the race "screwed up" and said he was "glad" it was his last All-Star race.
There is an easy cure for the problem. In the second 50-lap segment, drivers were required to pit with no more than 15 laps remaining. A similar rule could be invoked for the opening 50 laps, preventing a late caution from coming into play.
As it was, four drivers sought to find an advantage by pitting late in the opening segment. Winner Logano, Penske teammate and runner-up Brad Keselowski, plus Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were the four drivers whose teams tried this strategy. They all pitted with less than five laps to go in the segment, took two tires and then took two more fresh tires in between the two segments.
Each was a contender for victory before Busch got caught speeding entering the pits and Edwards' Toyota was discovered to have a loose lug nut. That eventually left Penske Racing with a one-two finish and a handsome purse, including the $1 million to the winner. Ironically, it was Keselowski who first suggested using this type of All-Star format.
If nothing else, it will be an All-Star race that will be remembered for years to come, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Recalling who actually won might become a good trivia question.