CONCORD, N.C. — It didn’t take teams very long to figure out their best shot at winning the All-Star race would be in the first 20 laps.
What few predicted, though, was that the new format would encourage drivers to take it easy for portions of Saturday night’s $1 million race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now fans are upset winner Jimmie Johnson essentially sandbagged for 60 or so laps before turning it up for a final charge to his third All-Star racevictory.
“Everybody knew if you could win that first segment, you could control the night,” said Johnson, who indeed won the first of four 20-lap segments.
Under the format for this year’s race, the winners of each of the first four 20-lap segments lined up 1-through-4 for the mandatory trip down pit road. Once there, it was a race to simply be the first drivers to get back on the track for the final 10-lap sprint to the finish.
So Johnson claimed the first segment, then faded to the back of field for next three segments. Matt Kenseth joined him at the rear after winning the second segment, and although Brad Keselowski was reluctant to follow the same strategy, he also went to the back when his team insisted it was the best strategy after the third segment.
“Obviously there was a debate whether or not to run hard or conserve your stuff,” Keselowski said. “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.”
It wasn’t all that popular for race fans, who seemed nonplussed by the three-wide racing through the pack that accentuated several of the opening segments. Instead, many seemed annoyed that Johnson, Kenseth and Keselowski had no incentive to race once they won their segments.
Johnson, who claimed “when the rules came down, every crew chief in the garage area realized the importance of that first segment,” was reluctant to criticize the latest All-Star race format. It was the eighth change to the format since the race was created in 1985.
“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 said.
But NASCAR has long touted its All-Star event as the only one in professional sports where the participants actually try hard, and Saturday night managed to discredit that theory.
It was clearly difficult for runner-up Keselowski, who made a solid attempt at sugarcoating the strategy of just riding around at the back of the field. He didn’t seem all that believable, though, following his second-place finish.
“I’ll race whatever rules you have,” he said. “I’ll race as hard as it takes to win. That was what it took to win. So, you know, I can’t say I feel great about it. Happy that we were good enough to win one of the segments.”
There are also new questions about the length of the final segment.
The idea of making it just 10 laps was obviously to create a frantic, all-out, sprint to the $1 million prize. But Carl Edwards proved last year that if a driver can get a good start, he can build enough of a lead that can’t be overcome in 10 laps.
After Johnson won the race down pit road on Saturday night, he, too, got a good restart and checked out from the rest of the field. Nobody had a chance to catch him in such a short sprint, but Keselowski said Johnson was so good, he wouldn’t have been able to catch him in 100 laps.
Kenseth, who restarted second and finished third, thought 10 laps gave Johnson a decided advantage.
“You got somebody as fast as him out front, there was no way I was going to have a shot in 10 laps,” Kenseth said. “Ten laps is kind of short, but yet the fastest car was out front. It was hard to beat that.”
Regardless of the format, the consensus among drivers seemed to be that the best car won the race. And for Johnson, it put him alongside the late Dale Earnhardt and teammate Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win three All-Star races.
Johnson’s win came a week after he gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup victory with a win at Darlington. With five Sprint Cup championships on his resume, this latest All-Star win was yet another feat in Johnson’s bid to rewrite the record books.
“I’ve got a lot of years left ahead of myself,” he said. “I want to leave my mark in this sport when I hang up my helmet. We’re doing a great job of that.”