Race Weekend Central

Four Burning All-Star Questions: Anti-Climatic Finishes and All-Star Underdogs

The Sprint All-Star Race is on tap for this evening, and if you’ve been watching Fox Sports 1 at all the past few weeks you’ve probably already been inundated with adverts and hype for the race. Whether or not the hype will be justified remains to be scene, but nonetheless, the All-Star Race still stands as the biggest example of pomp and circumstance that the sport has to offer. A million dollars is on the line tonight, and if you click down the page a bit, you get to hear who I think will pocket that money. Exciting, right?

1. Will the final segment be another runaway?

For the first time in what seems like forever, NASCAR neglected to make any changes to the All-Star Race’s format. Anyone who has followed the sport for a long time knows that NASCAR loves to change the rules for this race (sometimes for what seems like the sake of changing it). So the fact that there were no major adjustments to the format for the 2014 running (other than moving the Showdown to Friday night) is a bit of a relief.

Of course, keeping the “status quo” doesn’t mean that the current format is perfect. For the second year in a row, the race will be broken into four 20-lap segments and a final 10-lap shootout, with the final segment’s running order being determined by each driver’s average finish in the first four segments and a mandatory four-tire pit stop. Does your head hurt yet?

Jimmie Johnson took the lead exiting the pits at the end of Segment 4 last year and cakewalked to another Charlotte win. Will that happen again Saturday night?
Jimmie Johnson took the lead exiting the pits at the end of Segment 4 last year and cakewalked to another Charlotte win. Will that happen again Saturday night?

The average finish idea is certainly a noble one that increased the level of excitement for Segments 1 through 4, but the 10-lap sprint at the end of the event has created some noteworthy problems in the past two iterations of the race. The 2012 and ’13 events both featured 10-lap shootouts to conclude the race, and both of the shootouts were rather lame and anticlimactic runaways.

With another 10-lap shootout on tap for this year’s version of the race, there is reason to be concerned about the quality of the finish. At an aero track like Charlotte, 10 laps is simply not enough to allow tire wear to be a factor, and as such, the leader after the restart simply runs away with the win. Granted, the clean air advantage has been lessened thus far in 2014, so there’s hope such a runaway might not happen again. But if it does, you can be sure that changes will once again be made to the final segment for the 2015 race.

2. Will the drivers who advanced from the Sprint Showdown have a shot to win?

Never in the history of the Sprint All-Star Race has the Sprint Showdown been held on a different day than that of the main event. That changed this year, and last night Clint Bowyer and AJ Allmendinger finished 1-2 in the Showdown and punched their tickets into the Sprint All-Star Race. Josh Wise was announced as the Fan Vote winner and thus earned the 22nd and final spot in the big show.

Typically, drivers who advance out of the Sprint Showdown fare poorly in the All-Star Race. Only three drivers have ever won the All-Star Race after advancing from the Showdown. Unfortunately for fans of Bowyer, Allmendinger, and Wise, I don’t foresee that record to grow to four tonight. Of the three, Bowyer is the only one piloting equipment that is competitive enough to lead laps in a stacked All-Star field, and even that’s a bit of a stretch given MWR’s struggles this year. Bowyer certainly has ashot to win, but I just didn’t think he showed enough raw speed to be considered a realistic favorite.

Now granted, anything can happen, and strategy shake ups could always put an underdog into a position to win. But fans would be “Wise” (ha, see what I did there?) to temper their expectations for the drivers who advanced from the Showdown.

3. Will old feuds reignite under the lights?

One thing that fans need to understand about the NASCAR garage is that many within it do not like one another. Much has been made in recent years about the so-called lack of rivalries in the sport today, but the reality is that there are many feuds that simply brew under the surface and out of the public eye, mostly for PR-related reasons. That absolutely does not mean that such feuds can’t bubble up to the surface, however, and there is no better race for that to happen than the All-Star event.

There are no points, no Chase berths, and no stakes on the line tonight. The drivers know this fact, and in the past, they have taken full advantage of it. Take Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, for instance. Even though their much publicized feud from last year has seemingly “vanished,” they both still very much dislike each other, and if one them feels that the other wronged him, you can be damn sure that contact will ensue.
A fight may not happen tonight, and perhaps the race will be as clean as ever. Just know that there is far more animosity in the Cup garage than the media would have you believe, and tonight is as good a night as ever for that animosity to transform into a full-blown conflict.

4. Who will take home the million-dollar check?

The All-Star Race is a special event that rewards drivers with special skills. The short, “all-out” nature of the event heavily favors drivers who are good at running the car on the very ragged edge each and every lap, tire wear be damned. For this reason, Jimmie Johnson has been incredibly strong in this event in recent years, mostly because he is perhaps the best driver in the garage when the racing conditions call for drivers to run “qualifying laps” every lap in the race. Johnson’s car, however, was way off the mark in practice, and thus he is not my pick to win. That honor goes to one Brad Keselowski.

Much like Johnson, Keselowski is among the three or four best drivers in the garage when it comes to running the car at its very limit for multiple laps at a time. For that reason, Keselowski is an excellent pick to win tonight. Keselowski was very quick in practice and even thanked his team for giving him such a fast car. Drivers never thank their teams in such a manner so early in a race weekend, so take that as an indication that Keselowski has a fast piece for tonight.

As for other drivers to watch, keep an eye on Keselowski’s teammate Logano as well as Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Harvick and Logano have been the two best on intermediates this year, and Charlotte is about as intermediate as they come. Frankly, I’d be shocked if one of the two didn’t compete for the win.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Sprint All-Star Race:
1. 2 – Brad Keselowski
2. 4 – Kevin Harvick
3. 22 – Joey Logano
4. 18 – Kyle Busch
5. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
6. 24 – Jeff Gordon
7. 55 – Brian Vickers
8. 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9. 99 – Carl Edwards
10. 5 – Kasey Kahne

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