Craig Murto: All-Star race needs All-Star officials

Craig Murto

The Sprint Cup All-Star Race in Charlotte, N.C., promised to be one of the most exciting ever run; instead, it became the most confusing.

It was a real shame, too. The Sprint Open, run earlier in the day to qualify the final drivers into the all-star race, was a thriller. The new aerodynamic package NASCAR rolled out just for the event proved to be fantastic and enabled great competition; hopefully the sanction considers making it the rule for 2017.

To mix things up in the feature, NASCAR split the race into three segments. Two 50-lap segments would be followed by a 13-lap shoot-out. During the 50-lap segments, drivers had to make green-flag stops for at least two tires. Between segments one and two, there was a mandatory stop for tires. But before the final segment, broadcasters picked an envelope to determine whether nine, 10 or 11 cars must pit for four tires while everybody else stays out.

The hope was that with the new aero package and the tires brought to the tracks this season, fans would be thrilled to see the cars with fresh tires fight to get to the front in just 13 laps.

Unfortunately situations occur that officials don’t consider. And even more unfortunately is the lack of flexibility the officials demonstrated, which essentially ruined the all-star event.

The first segment was going fine; drivers were making their mandatory green-flag pit stops before the caution at Lap 50. It was obvious that some chose the strategy to get four tires under green so the team only needed two tires under caution as a way of improving track position. Due to tire wear, the later in the green-flag run you pit, the better the strategy worked because the fresher your tires.

But Matt Kenseth waited too long. On Lap 46 Jamie McMurray spun, bringing out a caution. Caution laps counted. The pace car picked up Kenseth, the leader, who had yet to pit. This trapped a number of cars a lap down.

At this point the officiating stumbled.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the “free pass,” given to the first car a lap down. Then Matt Kenseth was brought down pit road and penalized a lap for not making his mandatory green-flag stop.

Now it gets tricky. The leader of the race was Carl Edwards. But between Edwards’ car and the pace car were Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick.

Under normal circumstances, the cars in front of the leader would have been given a “wave around,” which during point-paying races is given to drivers in front of the leader who choose not to pit. But since pit stops were mandatory, NASCAR opened the pits for all, essentially trapping those seven drivers a lap down.

That’s where officials blew it. Common sense dictates that since it’s not a point-paying race, and since pit stops were mandatory, some discretion could have been used. If Kenseth had pit before the caution, those drivers never would have been trapped a lap down. NASCAR penalized all of those drivers for Matt Kenseth’s mistake.

The resulting confusion made the remainder of the race difficult to follow. The broadcasting staff wasn’t sure what was going on, and neither were the drivers on the track. There were some cautions during the second segment that allowed a couple drivers to get back on the lead lap, but there weren’t enough lead-lap cars to make the third segment interesting. Only the front row had old tires on the restart for segment three; if it had been three rows deep it may have been exciting.

The track crews worked hard fighting the weather to get all of the weekend’s events in that day. The Sprint Open was fantastic. The Truck Series race was exciting. The all-star race held so much promise.

Instead, the lack of flexibility by NASCAR officials allowed unforeseen circumstances to ruin an otherwise great race. From the moment NASCAR allowed those seven cars to pay for Kenseth’s mistake, NASCAR officials became the story rather than the racing on the track.

And the fans have not been kind. Maybe it’s time to allow the all-star race to fade away. I’m sure race teams wouldn’t mind the week off.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.