Concord, N.C. — I was totally confused watching the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
You were totally confused. I know this because of the tsunami of confusion gifs that landed on my Twitter timeline, everything from Elmo shrugging to Han Solo darting his eyes to the guy from Scanners whose head exploded.
I called my brother, a lifelong NASCAR fan who has a Yale law degree. He was totally confused. I called my old college roommate, an astronautics professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He’s been consulted on how to save our planet from a collision with a rogue asteroid.
He was totally confused.
At least we were all in great company.
Following the race I talked to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards and they were all totally confused. Tony Stewart said he had no idea what the hell was going on. Matt Kenseth just started laughing. And all of those guys have won this race before.
But none of those previous 31 editions was like the one we witnessed on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Forget All-Star Races. In NASCAR’s 68-year history there had never been a race like what we saw on Saturday night. Everyone who left the racetrack, stumbling out into the full moon-flooded night likely never wants to see another one like it.
Well, except maybe one guy.
“At one point I just said, ‘I’ll just drive the car and you call the race,’ ” Joey Logano said, laughing, as he pointed to the man seated beside him on the postrace media center stage, his crew chief Todd Gordon. “I was confused. All I knew was if there was a car in front of me I probably should pass him. That’s kind of where my head was. It not as complicated as you think it is. Well, it was complicated for this man [Gordon] , not so much for me.”
For the non-racing initiated (those such as Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who declared during the television coverage “You guys are punting on second down”) please understand that NASCAR making changes to the All-Star Race format is nothing new.
Over the years they have changed it more than Beyonce changes outfits during a two-hour concert. They change it so often that after all these years (Saturday night was my 20th All-Star Race) I don’t even bother trying to figure out the format until I arrive at the track on race day.
However, this year’s slate of alterations was different. This year’s three-segment 50-lap/50-lap/13-lap rundown was punctuated by mandatory pit stops that required set minimums of tire changes, a random envelope draw (by Olsen) to determine how many cars would have to pit prior to the final segment, plus a pair of immunity idols hidden somewhere on pit road.
Okay, I might not have that last part right. But I might.
This year’s changes weren’t cooked up by a team of sinister track promoters, race sponsors, or sanctioning body executives. This concoction was a direct result of NASCAR’s still-new age of cooperation and groupthink.
Saturday night’s structure was based largely on the input of the fledgling Driver Council, and the members of that group gave a lot of the credit for the new ideas to 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
It reminded me of the time I finally gave in to my daughter’s pleas to fix our family dinner. Her intentions were great. What she actually served us was half of a burnt Pop-Tart, a pile of raisins and some stale Peeps from her Easter basket.
On Saturday night the intent of NASCAR and its drivers was equally noble. They hoped to create drama through strategy and set up a great final stanza.
It didn’t really accomplish the first part. Instead of strategy, it created something that felt more like strategery.
Cars started pitting immediately at the start of segments while others stayed out too long and were penalized for not pitting within the time they were supposed to. At one point most of the field was a lap down. Then they weren’t. Then they were.
After every mass pit stop everyone had to stop to have their lugnuts checked to make sure they were all tight enough.
It was like watching people playing chess at a DUI checkpoint.
However, it did accomplish the second of the two goals. The final stanza was indeed great. It opened with four-wide insanity at 180 mph and it closed with one-time wunderkind Logano racing door-to-door with current wunderkind Kyle Larson, until Larson ran out of room and plowed the outside wall with two laps remaining.
No matter how weird the road was to get us there, it was a thrilling finish. And for anyone who has sat through the last decade of All-Star events, even the weird stuff was far more compelling than anything we’ve seen in quite a while.
“There was a last — or next to last lap pass for the lead. There were several passes for the lead. The last four races there hasn’t been a pass for the lead in the last 20 or 30 laps,” Keselowski recalled, standing on pit road, having just finished second as his teammate did celebratory burnouts behind him. “I think our fans deserve a better format than that and they got that today.”
He’s not wrong. Everyone deserves a better format than what we’ve had. But was Saturday night truly better? Better isn’t the right word. Saying something is better typically means you walk away feeling good.
So, what was it? It was interesting.
“I don’t know how you can get much more compelling racing than what we saw today,” Keselowski continued. “So (fans) need to get unconfused and enjoy the racing.”
That might take a while.