It seemed a good idea in theory, and in practice it almost was.
After years of alternating formats, NASCAR officials settled on a new setup for this year's Sprint All-Star Race: four preliminary, 20 lap segments—the winners of which would be granted first pit entry for the fifth segment and a 10 lap dash for $1 million. This would return the event to 90 laps in total, the same length as it was from 2002 to 2006, and ideally produce hard racing the whole way through.
The first four segments featured thrilling battles for the lead. The fifth was a runaway.
Anybody who watched the Sprint Showdown prior to the second and final non-points event of the Sprint Cup season probably could have identified the eventual issue. When a driver got the lead at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night, there was a good chance that they were going to run away with it. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led all 40 laps of the Showdown to earn a transfer spot into the big show and was relatively unchallenged in doing so.
Thankfully that wasn't the case in the early segments of the All-Star Race itself. As the sun set on the North Carolina skyline, Kyle Busch led the field of 23 cars to the green flag. He held the point until lap 15 when Jimmie Johnson made the pass to lead the final six laps and win the segment.
This is where the first issue arose.
For the start of the second segment, Johnson slunk to the back of the field, almost a full straightaway behind the pack of 22 competitors. He would do so for the remainder of the race. Then when Matt Kenseth won the second segment, he utilized the same strategy. Even if it was a smart (albeit conservative) strategy call to prepare for the final segment, it was a black eye on the constant promotion of the type of no-holds barred, "boys have at it" racing that is supposed to come with no points on the table.
How would you rate this year's All-Star format?
Thankfully the fans still had plenty to entertain them in the third and fourth segments. Thanks to a slingshot move on the final lap of the third segment, Kasey Kahne nearly nipped Brad Keselowski at the start-finish line only to fall short by .006 seconds. And nearly the whole crowd was on its feet for segment four, when Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag to secure the fourth seed coming into the pits.
The top four stayed in the same positions coming off of pit road, but the final 10-lap segment proved a disappointment. Kenseth didn't get a start on par with Johnson, holding up much of the right lane, while Johnson pulled away from Keselowski and came to the start-finish line relatively uncontested.
Johnson celebrated, taking Rick Hendrick for a heartwarming (and scary!) ride to salute the fans while hanging out the window of the Lowe's Chevrolet, but the rest of the field could only wonder if they would have had a chance with another 20-lap segment at the end.
Of course, from this learning experience, the tweaks are simple. Extend the final segment, and force the preliminary segment winners to line up with the main pack and continue to race keep their seeding. The current rule is to stay on the lead lap; the next rule should be to maintain a certain finishing position in each segment. Even if it's 15th out of 23 cars it still means that teams have to keep going for it.
That or NASCAR could just do local track-esque heat races. Hey, now there's an idea...