Through 80 laps of Saturday night's All-Star Race, I wanted to high-five the NASCAR executive who came up with the new event format.
It seemed brilliant: By giving the drivers incentive to go hard in each segment, NASCAR made the All-Star Race special again because the entirety of the race was good.
There were none of the wrecks and controversy that were heavily promoted in advertisements for the race, but that was OK; the final 10-lap shootout seemed certain to cap an evening of entertaining racing with a great finish.
And then it didn't. Jimmie Johnson drove off into the night, and in doing so exposed a couple flaws in the format:
• Some fans were outraged Johnson only raced for 30 of the 90 laps, because he and his team had realized after winning the first segment they could sit back and cruise until it was go-time.
As of this posting, about 1/3 of the fans in our informal poll said they "hated" the All-Star format because it allowed for segment to hang in the back and not race.
I'm guessing NASCAR didn't appreciate that strategy either – and probably didn't anticipate it happening – but if the last 10 laps had been memorable, those complaints might have been softened.
• The final 10 laps were a snoozer because Johnson – the fastest car – started in the pole position for the last "mini-race" and was unchallenged. The finish was a huge letdown from what had been an awesome night of racing.
Ultimately, putting the fastest car up front didn't create a great race for the $1 million prize.
So what's the solution?
NASCAR's segment winners idea was a fantastic concept and it came close to perfection, but it needs one small tweak: Instead of lining the segment winners up 1-2-3-4 for the final pit stop, NASCAR should put them 4-3-2-1 next year.
Let's say a driver wins Segment 1 under that slightly altered format. If so, then the driver would NOT have reason to drop to the back like Johnson did.
Why? Because the Segment 1 winner wouldn't want to come to the pits in fourth place. While it would be a nice prize to know a top-four spot was secured, both Segment 1's winning driver and crew chief would likely agree that racing to win another segment – and thus improve his position – would be preferable to riding in the back.
At the same time, lining the drivers up 4-3-2-1 could potentially put a faster car on the second row instead of out front for the 10-lap shootout. Think about it: Whoever wins the first segment is probably one of the best cars of the night, right?
In that case, the racing for the final 10 laps would have a chance to be more exciting. Johnson might still have won the All-Star Race with the best car, but he would have had to make some passes in the shootout portion to get it done.
Overall, NASCAR deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a format that made the beginning and middle of the race actually mean something after the 2011 version was a total dud.
Unfortunately, the segment winners' hang-back strategy coupled with the uneventful finish may have overshadowed a great concept.