NASCAR hopes softer tires return the magic to All-Star race
By JENNA FRYER
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) It's the 25th anniversary of "One Hot Night," the All-Star race that made the nighttime spectacular must-see TV.
NASCAR is hoping Saturday's night running can replicate some of the magic from that 1992 showcase.
That year was the first time the exhibition dash-for-cash was held under the lights at Charlotte. There was a full moon, a raucous crowd of more than 100,000 and a wild ending in which the winner was unconscious when he crossed the finish line. The driver, the late Davey Allison, went to the hospital and his damaged car did not go to victory lane.
Nothing will likely top that race, celebrated recently by Charlotte officials at the track's prestigious speedway club. Allison was represented by Larry McReynolds, his crew chief at the time.
"Davey asked me 10 times from the car to the infield care center what happened," McReynolds recalled. "I kept telling him, and then he would ask me again."
NASCAR is in need of another memorable night. Why not Saturday? The All-Star race this year has the makings of one they will talk about it for 25 years - if the drivers treat it that way.
NASCAR has some good on-track competition right now, and the $1 million made-for-TV event is a chance to showcase the storylines. There's a changing of the guard and a youth movement afoot, and some of the older stars need to prove their relevancy. There's no better stage to just throw it all to the wind than this race that doesn't matter.
As always, there's a convoluted format that will lead to one 10-lap shootout for $1 million. This year, only 10 drivers will be allowed to compete in the final sprint.
The big shake-up is a softer tire and Goodyear officials seemed to be pretty excited after a Friday practice session. Stu Grant, Goodyear's general manager of world-wide racing, thought the "bonus tire" was considerably faster but wasn't sure what importance track position will have on Saturday night.
Grant said the tires are built to last at least one 20-lap run, so it was up to teams to decide when they wanted to use that softer batch. If a driver elects to use the tires in the final shootout, he must start at the rear of the field.
When to use the tires becomes the pivotal question of the race because some will race with them just to ensure a spot in the final 10. Others will save the tires for the shootout, as they try to weave through traffic to regain track position and chase the money.
It's literally checkers or wreckers, and a real chance for NASCAR to recapture the hype surrounding "One Hot Night."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has indicated the drivers have long asked for a softer tire - it has more grip but an unpredictable life span - so the gamble of briefly using a different compound Saturday night appeals to many. It could long-term lead to a second tire from Goodyear, but short-term has to deliver a real show Saturday night.
"I think the hardcore fans like that piece of strategy," Earnhardt said.
In other words, there's not a lot of glitz and glamor to this race. Even Martin Truex Jr. didn't know the rules when asked Friday. He thought the soft tires could only be used in the final 10-lap segment, and was unaware they could be used in an earlier stage of the event.
Under that thinking, he felt drivers have to use them in the final.
"They're so much faster, we're going to have to do this," he said.
Drivers should use them and drivers should lay it out on the line. Make this race matter again, and start it in the open, which is a qualifying race for drivers not already eligible for the All-Star race.
That event, which has Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick, could be just as intense.
Winning it "would mean everything because that means I'm an All-Star in this sport," said Ty Dillon.
"This is our All-Star event and the drivers that are in it are all-stars of our sport, so I think that's something that we could do a better job of publicizing," he said. "The event is awesome. It's super fun. Everybody watches the Major League Baseball All-Star game. Everybody watches the NBA All-Star game because of the All-Stars.
"I think being a part of that race and knowing that this year, if I make it in, I'm an All-Star of the Cup series in my rookie year. That would be pretty cool."
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org
Updated May 19, 2017