Like most things in NASCAR, something that started as a simple concept has spun out of control and needs to be stopped. The two all-star events for NASCAR, the Sprint Unlimited run at the Daytona International Speedway, and the Sprint All-Star Race run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway have ran their course and should be retired.
All-star events are cool, but when you take away the factor of meaning (points, win/loses) behind them, they always seem to lack something. This point is not a NASCAR exclusive issue, other sports like hockey, basketball, and famously football have seen their all-star events called into question because of a lack of interest by participants and fans. Baseball had to respond to declining interest by awarding the winning league of the game home field advantage for the World Series, aka give the event some sort of meaning, but that has been met with mixed results.
The Sprint Unlimited was originally created to honor drivers who won poles the previous season. After it was realized that there, on average, were only 10-15 drivers who won poles the rules started to be adjusted to add more cars. Especially at Daytona, where pack racing is king, only having 10 cars (extreme low example) makes for nothing short of terrible racing. This week it was announced how the 2015 field would be made up and that is how I know this event has “jumped the shark.”
To get into the 2015 Sprint Unlimited you need to have won a pole in the previous season (like how it all began) and be running the full 2015 season (I call that the Brian Scott rule). It doesn’t end there, because if that didn’t get you in and you made last season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, you’re now in this event. Because part of the new rules say a minimum field of 25, the next way to get into the field is to have previously won a Daytona 500 pole and are running the full season (I call that the Danica Patrick rule). And finally, if 25 drivers can’t be found that way, they’ll round out the field with the highest placing drivers in the last season’s point standings who are not already in.
The interesting part about how this field is made up is how often it was emphasized that it was a minimum field of 25 drivers. That means, in NASCAR’s favorite scenario, we could see 30 or more drivers compete in the race. This was add excitement to a sometimes bland event, but at that point how is it an all-star race and not just a normal race?
Let’s take a quick look at the Sprint All-Star race. That was created originally to honor race winners of the previous season and up to that point in the current season. Again, great concept, but they found out early that there weren’t that many drivers winning, especially back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The solution was a race prior to the event to allow a few drivers (typically five) the ability to race their way in. That worked for some time before additional one off races and additional rules were added.
To make the event exciting, segments were added with the possibility of field inversion to keep drivers from running away with the race. The problem with this is every year the rules have been adjusted so much that most (drivers, crews, fans, etc.) don’t know the rules until the day of the race how the race is to be run. That should have been a red flag right there that gimmicks were needed to keep fan interest on TV and in the stands.
Besides the dilution of the honor of getting into these races, I think the biggest issue, and why I feel so strongly about dropping these races, is there is nothing that different going on from any other race. Sure there’s segments and mandatory pit stops, but the cars are running at the same tracks they always run at.
For me, if you’re going to do an all-star race, make it something unique and different. Other sports do this, be it playing in a different city from normal like football or how the teams are made up of players from all different teams. In NASCAR it’s the same drivers with the same teams running the same cars. They should just call these test sessions for the teams that have the money to run them and go all out.
My suggestion is ditch the Unlimited, there is already almost three weeks of practice at Daytona there doesn’t need to be anymore. NASCAR sort of agreed by ending preseason testing in January there because it is honestly ridiculous how much time they have on track for this race. You keep the all-star race though, but don’t run it at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, instead run it at the little dirt track across the street. Then you don’t have the drivers run their Cup cars, instead have them run late model cars.
This would be an instant hit, just look at what Eldora Speedway’s inclusion in the Truck Series schedule has done for that facility and the Trucks. While a smaller venue, the dirt track would be packed to see the NASCAR stars do something different. Then you can do all the segments and tweaks the race already has, but it would make more sense being on a small track setting. And most importantly, you’re going back to the roots of the sport in one of the most historic cities for NASCAR.
If NASCAR won’t go to a different model for their all-star events, they might as well make those two weekends additional races that pay points. We are closing in on a time when nearly everyone makes these special events and takes away from them being special. Change is needed and if they keep with the status quo, I’ll not hesitate to find something better to do with my time on those Saturday nights.