Homestead Preview Podcast: Tire management for the championship?

With two fewer sets of tires available to teams this year, will Homestead turn into a tire strategy race? In this special edition of the podcast, the championship contenders sound off on the positives and negatives of the potential tire situation on Sunday.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR All-Star Race

Five thoughts on Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway…

1. Sigh

So I’m sitting here in the Charlotte Motor Speedway press box, staring out at the track after a blahtacular All-Star Race and, well, it’s sort of deflating.

Whatever NASCAR and the track come up with for this race, it just doesn’t seem to work. That’s because it’s always the same winner: Clean Air.

So after another All-Star event that failed to deliver on the hype, it’s surely back to the drawing board — again.

It’s probably a tribute to the NASCAR and Charlotte marketing machine that we buy into the possibility of a good All-Star Race every year, only to be reminded that’s not the case. There’s only so much that can be done on a 1.5-mile track like this one.

“We all run the same speed,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.”

That’s why the emphasis for the All-Star Race each year is to force some sort of passing in the final stage, typically by some strategy play or gimmick. And that’s fine, because it’s an exhibition race that exists solely for entertainment.

But when the entertainment doesn’t materialize? It seems to generate more outrage than your average NASCAR-related controversy.

Ultimately, the 2017 All-Star Race was familiar in a bad way: A clean-air affair that literally required a spreadsheet to keep track of who was doing well, combined with no real action (the only cautions were for the stage breaks).

Bummer.

2. Tire storyline goes flat

As it turned out, everyone was wayyyy too optimistic about the option tire’s impact on this race. But it doesn’t mean the idea wouldn’t work for future events.

Let’s start with Saturday night, though. Remember when the big tire twist was first announced? The original theory was lots of teams would take the option tire for the final round.

It’s going to be crazy! How will the strategy play out? You have to watch!

Except a funny thing happened (well, actually not funny at all): Not a single team chose to use the option tires in the final round.

The problem was the tire was a little faster, but not fast enough to make up the track position a team would lose by taking them in the final round. And it didn’t fall off as much as anticipated, so it worked better on the 20-lap runs earlier in the race.

So the tires weren’t able to deliver on their promise in the All-Star Race.

“We could probably go a little bit softer, utilize a little bit more grip in order to be faster, have more (speed) split between the two tires,” Kyle Busch said. “The tires equalized more than maybe some would have hoped for. But it was just a guess. They didn’t necessarily pull a tire test here. I thought they did a good job testing.”

But that doesn’t mean the option tire was a bad experiment for races when it really counts. It’s a strategy wrinkle that could add something to Cup races in the future. And it wouldn’t feel overly gimmicky, either.

“I think the garage area … has a favorable opinion of how this went tonight,” Johnson said. “Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. … It’s better than having a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it’s a good way, a competitive way to create different-paced cars in the field.”

3. If Kyles ruled the world

Kyle Busch is one of the all-time great talents. He didn’t need an All-Star win to prove that — though it’s certainly nice for his resume — nor did he need to beat Jimmie Johnson in a head-to-head showdown.

He’s only going to accomplish more and more before he’s all done, probably racing until son Brexton is in a car (Kyle is only 32; Brexton is 2). So as your favorite drivers continue to retire, it’s not a guarantee the young guns will take over — because veterans like Busch might just continue to dominate.

However, there’s certainly hope for the young guns — and that’s really led by Kyle Larson. The dude continues to be a one-man show, and his attitude is just so different than anyone I’ve covered.

Take this quote about clean air, for example: “I enjoy it. It adds an element. It’s something you have to work through and become the better driver, find clean air, do a good job with it.”

What?! All we’ve heard for years are driver quotes like, “Well, he got out in clean air and there was nothing I could do.” There’s a lot of complaining about aero.

Larson doesn’t seem to complain, though. He tries to use it as a challenge. That seems refreshing (although he might eventually get frustrated like the rest of them, because the whole dirty air phenomenon really sucks).

4. Open and shut

The battle between Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez — and eventually Erik Jones — during Stage 3 of the Open wasn’t just the best moment of the night. It might have been the best racing moment of the season so far.

Elliott was doing everything he could to get around Suarez, and they put on quite a show for a lap before Jones caught both of them and tried Pass in the Grass II. Unfortunately, Pass in the Grass I was aided by the cars not being sealed to the ground with splitters in the front, and it can’t be replicated today. So instead, Jones dug his splitter into the grass and destroyed his car, bringing out a caution with three laps to go.

You may recall last year’s Open was also quite dramatic, when Elliott and Larson banged doors en route to the finish line and both sustained damage.

The takeaway? Well, the Open is a kick-ass race, for one thing. It’s so fun and refreshing to see drivers other than the usual suspects going hard and fighting for a win at the front of the field. I love that race, and it’s one of my favorites each year just because of different faces getting the spotlight.

But it’s also another reason why heats and last-chance races would be very entertaining on a weekly basis during the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Remember, a “Norm Benning Moment” can be almost as good as a “Game 7 Moment.”

5. Come early, folks!

The pre-race experience might be on the way back after taking a big hit over the last couple years.

NASCAR fans used to have the souvenir haulers, the huge Sprint Experience and the SPEED Stage to occupy themselves before the race.

But by the end of last year, the stupid Fanatics tent had replaced the haulers, the Sprint Experience was phased out and TV stage was apparently a victim of FOX cuts.

There seems to be some movement in the right direction now though.

This weekend marked the return of the souvenir haulers, which drew a nice crowd (from what I could see during a short walk-through Saturday afternoon). Then there were Bellator MMA fights at the Monster Energy display, where people sat on the hillside as sort of an amphitheater and watched dudes beat the crap out of each other on a hot day.

Even a form of the old SPEED stage has returned, but not for TV purposes. They’re calling it the “Trackside Live” stage — with the old familiar TV show name — but it’s primarily for fans at the track. Speedway Motorsports Inc. realized people missed that element, so SMI recreated the stage for fan entertainment purposes. It’s a good move, because now there’s an additional place for driver appearances or concerts or things like that. Hopefully, the International Speedway Corp. tracks will hop on board with the stage as well.

The bottom line is NASCAR fans expect more than just a race when it comes to attending in person. They want to make a day out of it and have things to do for hours before the green flag. So all these things were positives in that regard.