Eric’s Take: I’m a convert — All Star package may not be the answer

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton's 400

Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Red White & Blue Toyota, celebrates after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 1, 2018 in Joliet, Illinois. Photo by Jared C. Tilton

It might seem odd to some who follow the podcast to read this next sentence — I think we need to consider not using the All Star package in the Cup Series.

Look, I was all in favor of it in the All Star race. It definitely made a race that has been poor the last few years much better. I was excited when the Xfinity cars ran the package at Michigan. And I even looked forward to NASCAR trying the package at Michigan in the Cup Series in August.

But last weekend’s Cup race at Chicagoland may have changed my mind.

As I said in Episode 67 of the podcast, Sunday’s Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway was an excellent race, even without the last lap battle between Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch. That battle was the icing on the cake. But what made it even better is that race was pure. There were no gimmicks (unless you are one who still considers stage racing to be a gimmick — I am not of that party). Nothing was manufactured. We didn’t put sticky stuff down on the track. We didn’t change the areo on the cars. There was no restrictor plate. There were no goofy rule changes to make the racing better. Heck, there wasn’t even a competition caution.

All we had were natural conditions — a hot day, slick track, good falloff on tires and asphalt that had finally worn out since its installation in 2001.

So often I hear NASCAR fans long for the good ol’ days of racing, when every week was exciting like this weekend’s Chicago race. But Chocolate Myers said it best on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week — despite how much certain races stick in our memory from the past, they were not in any way a common occurrence. In fact, even the extraordinary memories we have might not be that accurate.

Let’s use one race that is a prime example — the 1976 Daytona 500. Coming to the checkered flag, David Pearson and Richard Petty are battling for the win. They touch. They crash. Both spin into the trioval. Both try to refire their cars. David Pearson makes it across the line to win. Petty doesn’t get going again. It’s one of the most spectacular races in NASCAR history.

What no one seems to remember is, by Petty not crossing the line, only one car finished on the lead lap that day — your winner, David Pearson. That’s because the rest of the field was at least a lap down. Only Petty and Pearson were on the lead lap at the time of the crash. In fact, only Petty and Benny Parsons finished the race one lap down. Fourth place finisher Lennie Pond was two laps down. Fifth place finisher Neil Bonnett was three laps down. Frank Warren finished the race that day in 10th position, 10 laps down. In fact, there were only 18 cars left running at the end of the 42-car field.

Not exactly the spectacular race we all remember, was it?

Let’s look a little more recent. Let’s look at Darlington in 2003, again the race that many say was the best finish in NASCAR history, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven battle to the finish, banging doors and cross the line in one of the closest finishes ever. Instant classic. Most remember it as the Southern 500. But it wasn’t. That race happened March 16, and it was the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. Terry Labonte won the Southern 500 later that year.

It was a great finish, but only 10 cars were on the lead lap at the end of the race. Everyone who finished worse than 15th was at least two laps down. The race was dominated by three drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, who combined to lead all but 52 of the 293 laps. We remember the finish, but do you remember any of the rest of the race?

My point is we are spending way too much time trying to figure out a way to manufacture races and finishes that happen naturally throughout history. And so often when we try to manufacture better racing, we make it worse. Can anyone remember the wing on the Car of Tomorrow? Supposedly it was supposed to make it easier to pass. It did make it easier for cars to go flying through the air, but passing wasn’t any better. It might be one of the least-memorable eras in NASCAR history, minus cars flying through the air.

We need to stop thinking that every race is going to be the best race ever. It’s not. And if it means we’re going to have to sit through some sinkers to see what we saw Sunday in Chicago, I’m OK with that.

I’m not saying scrap the All Star package. You know what that package is great for? The All Star race. I think if that race stays at Charlotte, we should keep that package there for good. I’m also not against trying it on a track or two during the 2019 season to see if it works somewhere like Michigan. But a recent report that says there is a chance we could see it introduced for all 2-mile and 1.5-mile tracks in 2019 — that would be a gigantic mistake. I hope that doesn’t happen.

If you want to make racing better, give drivers a reason to race. Racing has improved with the stages — look at Harvick and Kurt Busch battling at the end of Stage 2 Sunday. There are plenty of other examples where mid-race battles have materialized because of stage racing.

Let’s look at shortening races. Let’s make the maximum Cup race 300 miles. Keep your special races, the Coca-Cola 600, Daytona 500, Southern 500. But cut the rest down.

If you want better racing, make changes to allow it to happen naturally. If you continue to try to manufacture better racing, you’re probably not going to get the result you’re looking for, and you only succeed in cheapening the sport in the long run.

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