The NASCAR All-Star Race is promoted as an event where anything goes, where there are no lines that can't be crossed. Nevertheless, despite a quirky new format which was designed to provide some incentive for drivers to try their damndest to win each segment, the All-Star Race failed to deliver.
As the field rolled to the green for the final 10-lap shootout with a $1 million dollar prize awaiting the winner, it seemed obvious to those involved and those watching that winner was going to come from one of the first four rows – whether that was Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (all of whom had won one of the first four segments).
Yet there were no fireworks, no controversy and not even a lead change in what was supposed to be a mad dash for the cash. All that happened was Johnson checking out – and the front of the field stringing itself out.
And instead of adding another memorable chapter in a book filled with them, ultimately the 2012 edition of the All-Star Race will be just another footnote.
Even though the new format did prove to have some merit, it also saw Johnson, Kenseth and Keselowski drop to the rear of the field after their respective wins and run in the back in order to save their equipment for the final 10-lap sprint to the finish. This meant when the fourth segment rolled around, the three fastest cars were near the bottom of the running order doing everythingthey could not to take any unnecessary chances – the complete antithesis of what the All-StarRace is supposedly all about.
"I watched what the 48 did," said Kenseth, who finished third. "They won the first one, so they didn't race until the last 10. We watched that, too – kind of hung back. There wasn't any reward for racing up through there. You knew you were coming on pit road second."
Not everyone though, was of the opinion that the racing was uneventful Saturday night. Among them was the driver who with his third victory tied Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon for most wins in the All-Star Race and contended afterwards that by him dropping to the rear it allowed for better racing up front.
"No, we were trying," Johnson said when asked if he tried to race after scoring the win in the first segment. "We were working on our car. I was making sure I could get a couple good laps in and find the balance of the car. We were in heavy conversation about small adjustments, what we could do preparing for that final segment. Once we get through that and I catch the back, it was time to ride. That's no fun.
"I had to believe in the system. I really think whoever won that first segment would have done the same thing. It's just what you do when you can control the race like that. We took great advantage of it."
Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus elaborated on his driver's above point, noting that after winning the opening segment, it was critical that the 48 team stick to its plan of "limit your risk" and use the system to its advantage the best that it could.
But after everything was over and as talk centered on what had just transpired, it was the man who finished second who had the most telling comment on how this year's race was conducted.
"You know, obviously there was a debate whether or not to run hard or conserve your stuff," Keselowski said. "I hate conserving racecars. 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 got to do what they tell me."