Monday morning NASCAR recap: Johnson’s win ignites anger among fans; All-Star Race loses mystique

Drew Hallowell

Analyzing Jimmie Johnson’s unpopular All-Star Race victory and why the event itself has lost its mystique.

With success comes contempt in NASCAR.

The more races and championships you win, the less popular you become. It's a fact of life that at one point was experienced by everyone from Jeff Gordon to Rusty Wallace to Darrell Waltrip. Eventually those three became crowd favorites, but it was well after the trips to the winner's circle had slowed down.

Currently, the vitriol from the grandstands is now being directed largely at Jimmie Johnson due to fans tiring of seeing the driver of the No. 48 car steamroll his way into the record books.

All of which explains why when a television graphic incorrectly showed Johnson should have entered pit road 11th and not fourth before the critical final pit stop during Saturday's Sprint All-Sprint Race, it set off a backlash that once again NASCAR was playing favorites. The thinking among the masses was that the 48 team had somehow gamed the system and were going to be in position to win a race it had no business winning.

Of course all this was untrue, as Johnson had lined up correctly. And when the green flag was displayed, he pounced, wrestling the lead away from Kasey Kahne to win a record-breaking fourth All-Star Race.

"People just want to hate," Johnson said following his win. "That's fine. "I'm just lucky. NASCAR rigs the races and whatever they want to believe."

"I'm going home with a cool trophy and a big check and we all really know what happened. So whatever."

This latest triumph and second straight All-Star Race win was a prototypical victory for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. The duo again showcased their ability to win under any format, even on a night when the 48 car wasn't the best on the track. Additionally, it highlighted their proficiency to capitalize on others' mistakes.

Throughout the evening, it had been the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, who dominated the opening four segments.

But Kurt's night was undone by a slow final pit stop which saw him drop from first to fifth, and without the aid of being in clean air, his Chevrolet lost its superiority.

It wasn't much better for younger brother Kyle. He too was slow off of pit road and, starting third for the ten-lap sprint to the finish, couldn't get the jump he needed on Johnson and Kahne.

"You always want more and when you lose to a guy like Jimmie Johnson, a five-time champion, Chad Knaus, those guys they were just perfect again," Kurt Busch said. "We were just one click slow on pit stop and one click off on the final adjustment."

Kyle vented his frustration more directly. "There's f****** five-time walking away," he radioed to his crew as Johnson drove away.

However, Johnson isn't immune from making mistakes himself. In qualifying Friday, he overshot his pit box which forced him to start at the back of the grid, 18th out of 22 cars.

But Johnson was able to atone for his rare blunder, while others simply weren't. In a way, it's symbolic of the year he's had.

Other drivers may have been more dominant, but it is Johnson with unwavering consistency who maintains a stranglehold on the point standings, 44 markers ahead of second-place Carl Edwards.

And what if Johnson's early season success manifests itself into a sixth Sprint Cup championship? Well, probably more of what we witnessed Saturday, with outrage on social media about conspiracy theories and fixed races.

"No, we just get lucky, man," said Johnson sarcastically. "That's what people say. There's no talent involved, we just got lucky tonight."

The All-Star Race has lost its luster

Part of the mystique of the All-Star Race is that it is perceived as an event where fireworks are not just expected but guaranteed.

Recent history, however, suggests this is more myth than fact, with Saturday's race the latest example of where the results failed to match the hype.

Although there were moments of hard racing largely brought on by drivers trying to lower their average finishing and during restarts when the field was lumped together, for the most part the racing was single-file and monotonous.

The prevailing strategy -- and the one used by Johnson to win -- was to use track position to get to the front, and then use the clean air to distance yourself from the pack.

"The 48 was really, really fast," said second-place finisher Joey Logano. "Once he got that clean air he was gone. All I could do was hope for clean air and [another caution to] try to stack everything up and give it one more shot."

Not exactly an ideal formula for a race which is supposed to feature drivers dancing on the ragged edge all in hopes of securing a $1 million prize.

There were plenty of opinions afterward as to the reasons for another underwhelming edition of the All-Star Race. Ten laps isn't enough for a final segment, further tweaks need to be made to the current format, Goodyear brought a hard tire compound with no give and the Charlotte pavement hasn't aged enough since being resurfaced in 2006.

All of these are valid explanations.

But ultimately, it boils down to the same issue which has plagued many a NASCAR race in recent years, with passing often a chore on intermediate-sized speedways.

Although the Generation-6 has fixed that problem to some degree, producing solid races at Fontana and Las Vegas, the issue was still prevalent at Charlotte. Drivers knew going into the weekend that their only chance to win was to restart the final segment on the front row.

This speaks to a larger problem with the All-Star Race: the previous eight editions have featured just one lead change in the final five laps. Gone is the drama that used to define this event. Instead, it has become hard to differentiate this race from any other on the calendar.

A race which used to be novel is now merely ordinary.

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