Jimmie Johnson played an odd strategy to win last year's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race that left fans dissatisfied. NASCAR changed the rules for this year's race, but should the sanctioning body consider a radical event overhaul?
A rule change for this year's NASCAR all-star event is meant to stymie others from replicating how five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson played last year's rules to his advantage. Johnson won last year's first heat race to guarantee himself the pole position for the final sprint—and then sandbagged through the remaining parts.
The method worked like a charm and made Johnson just the third three-time winner of the much-hyped event.
Fans weren't entirely pleased, and NASCAR listened. The rules for 2013 now seed that final 10-lap sprint based on average finish among the four heat races.
Next year, officials need to take even more drastic action to take the marquee event from good to great.
NASCAR's Sprint All-Star Race needs to hit the road.
No, this isn't a slight on Charlotte Motor Speedway or anyone actually involved with the production of the annual event. Instead this is about improving a NASCAR asset that has reached its full potential and now seems to carry less luster each year.
Let's be real: Johnson's win last year was a bit of a snoozer, the 2011 event had four leaders and the race has paid more than $1 million to the winner every year since 2003. NASCAR's audience—and the young audience it covets—isn't likely to connect further to the event once known as "One Hot Night." Most of the drama now feels either contrived or like just a re-hash of old video clips.
Things like the potential $2 million payout to this year's winner just don't resonate with fans when top drivers earn more than 10 times that each year. The racing isn't any different from other races because drivers don't really want to A) crash, and B) already compete to their fullest each week.
Further, teams aren't even allowed to attempt wildly innovative setups for the race because of NASCAR's ultra-stringent rulebook.
So what does the alternative to racing NASCAR's all-star event in Charlotte look like?
Picture this: the stars and cars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing through the streets of a major U.S. city—for simplicity, I'm fine with using Charlotte's emerging Uptown district for the first year—on a spring Saturday night.
The street course would be relatively short (right around one mile in length) and provide excellent passing zones, tight corners and wide straightaways to allow short-track style fender rubbing. Build it in an arena parking lot if need be, though near iconic landmarks would be preferred.
Surrounding the event is a festival-like atmosphere geared to families and young crowds not unlike anything outside the main stadium of Major League Baseball's All-Star Weekend.
Smaller support events could boast the regular drivers in both the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. Make the schedule jam-packed during the day with driver skills competitions, qualifying, concerts and extensive fan interaction events.
Come nighttime, the buzz would be palpable and easy to maintain. The tight confines would create the ideal environment for television. Sparks, as they say, would fly.
Should the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race move away from Charlotte Motor Speedway?
Ideally, the race would be located in the heart of metropolitan areas on a rotating basis every year. Instead of the effort required to get casual fans to a race track, the new event would come to them with all the notes of a rock concert. Off the top of my head, a short list of destinations should also include Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
Just think how cool a race near Washington's monuments or near the Golden Gate Bridge would be.
In the name of international exposure, the 15-year plan for the event could hope for stops in Toronto, Vancouver or even London.
Yes, that's a long way from NASCAR's southern roots and a bit off-base with my other belief that the sport needs to embrace its long-lost tradition more.
But let's not forget that the 2015 All-Star event will mark just its 30th year running. Moving the Southern 500 back to Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend and putting additional emphasis on improving the Coca-Cola 600's reduced recent prominence would more than make up for initial hardcore fan dissatisfaction.
The new and inspired venue may be the solution to increasing the NASCAR all-star event's television ratings to somewhere closer to the numbers reached by stick-and-ball sports. It would also place NASCAR's product at the doormat of an audience the sport so desperately tries to reach.
Following Saturday night's race, it's at least an idea NASCAR should consider.