The new format for NASCAR's All-Star race was supposed to produce a gripping competition that would ensure the biggest names in motorsports would be going all out for a shot at $1 million. While the race proved exciting at points, the format actually allowed for teams to take their foot off the gas pedal for large stretches of the race.
NASCAR's All-Star race is in better shape than many other professional sports, where fans often bemoan the fact their favorites have nothing to play for and take it too easy. The drivers in NASCAR are competing for $1 million, so there's clearly a lot on the line. However, NASCAR's attempts to differentiate the All-Star race this year may have led to more problems than solutions.
The idea seemed good - four segments of 20 laps each, followed by a final 10 lap sprint for the title. The four winners of the first 20-lap segments would be the first drivers down pit road during a mandatory pit stop before the 10-lap finale. Thus, there was plenty of incentive to race hard early on.
That is, until you won a segment. The first 20 laps of the race were indeed fast and furious, as every driver wanted to be the first car down pit road. In the end, it was Hendrik Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson that came away with the advantage.
And then Johnson took his foot off the gas, slipped all the way back to the back of the pack, and let the other riders fight over the remaining segments.
"Everybody knew if you could win that first segment, you could control the night," Johnson told The Associated Press after the race.
After all, Johnson didn't have much incentive to keep racing his hardest. Instead, his crew decided to conserve engine power and ride around the track for sixty laps until the finale. It didn't matter that he was in the back - winning the first segment meant he'd be back in front when the race really mattered.
Matt Kenseth won the second segment and did the exact same thing. When Brad Keselowski triumphed in the third segment, he also went to the back of the pack - even though he clearly didn't want to.
"Obviously there was a debate whether or not to run hard or conserve your stuff,'' Keselowski told the news source after the race. "I hate conserving race cars. They're meant to run hard. I just wanted to make sure that everybody on my team was on the same plan, and they were. So I've got to do what they tell me.''
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the fourth segment, and then the race was on. Johnson beat the other riders down pit road, where he had the best position thanks to Hendrick Motorsports winning the earlier pit crew challenge. The driver was then first out of the pit on the restart, and was then so far gone that no other rider really had a chance to catch him.
The 10-lap finale was supposed to be the most nail-biting racing of the evening - instead, it was essentially 10 victory laps for Johnson, who picked up his third All-Star win. The lackluster night left many fans disappointed, but Johnson was on cloud nine after the win - his second in the span of one week after notching Hendrick Motorsports' 200th victory last Sunday.
Already, there are rumors that NASCAR officials are planning to come up with a new format for next year's competition - one that will hopefully result in some tense racing. Johnson, however, doesn't think they should change a thing.
"That's going to be tough for me to knock the system after how our night went because it just worked out exactly how we'd hoped,'' he told the news source.