After an experimental rules package was tried in Saturday night’s All-Star Race, I had some thoughts to share about the balance of entertainment vs. competition. This podcast was recorded as a live stream on Periscope.
I’m joined by Motorsport.com’s Lee Spencer to help make sense of the NASCAR All-Star Race on this week’s post-race podcast. Plus, I get to ask Three Dumb Questions to MMA legend Tito Ortiz. And a personal update on where Sarah and I are headed next.
Five thoughts on Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway…
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).
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.
Each week, I’m asking someone from the racing industry about their social media use in a feature called the Social Spotlight. Up next: Matt DiBenedetto from GoFas Racing, who is in the midst of a campaign to get voted into Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race.
Ever since you’ve opened up your Snapchat account to the public (username: mattdracing), I’ve seen a whole new side of you. What kind of reaction have you gotten so far since you opened that?
I didn’t expect it to blow up quite as much as it has. Every race so far, after I opened my Snapchat account to being public, I’ve gotten tons of people who are like, “Oh my gosh, your wife’s gonna kill you one day. That’s so hilarious.” So it’s been cool. It’s getting like thousands of views.
No kidding? That’s crazy. I’ve been on Snapchat for quite a long time and I don’t have anything close to those numbers. So why did you decide to open it after being private for a while?
I was already like famous amongst my friends for my Snapchats, you know, pranking people and torturing my wife (Taylor) and all that crazy nonsense that I get into. But all my friends were like, “Dude, the fans would love this stuff. It’s hilarious.” And so I was like, “You know what, I think I need to do it and post on my story. It’ll be fun to share with everybody.”
And man, it’s gone damn near viral amongst the fans. They think it’s hilarious. Even Dale Jr. tweeted about it because I’m friends with him on Snapchat and I’ll send him some stuff and he’s like, “You wanna see someone who pranks his wife and funny stuff, all of that?” So that’s been good.
If you want to laugh at a man pranking his wife constantly then this would be the place. Keep up the good work Matt. Enjoy folks. https://t.co/Z2olcgbZ6z
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 7, 2017
You sing in the car on Snapchat, you definitely prank a lot of people. Last week, you were using an air horn to prank your wife and things like that. Do people not ever get mad at you? Are they just like, “That’s Matt,” and they just laugh? Surely people must sometimes be like, “You jerk!”
I’m just annoying and people are just kind of OK with it at this point. (Laughs) Yeah, my wife’s a good sport — I don’t know why she tolerates me. If I was in her shoes, there’s no way that I would.
Actually, her and my neighbors did try to get me back and scare me with a firecracker the other day, so she’s on it. Her prank game just isn’t quite on my level yet, but I think she’s gonna start learning — or is gonna have to learn pretty soon.
Do you have your messages open, where random people can send you stuff? Or are you not at that point yet?
I don’t think so. I don’t know how that works quite yet, so no, right now I think I just have it to where it’s public and everybody can go and view my stuff that I put on my story.
The more you get into the public eye, the more your life becomes public. How do you decide how much you want to share with the fans and people like that out there?
I think it’s just fun that we have the ability to share our lives with all those folks. That’s what it’s about. Racing and being able to do what we do for a living isn’t in any way possible without the fans — really, we’re nothing without them — so it’s a privilege for me be able to share all that stuff and share my life with them because they’re the ones that make it possible for all of us to be doing that. I’ll definitely never forget that, and I hope none of the other drivers or anybody else ever forgets that either because that’s what it’s about.
I would never be rude to a fan or anybody — I treat everybody with respect and I appreciate them because they’ve allowed me to be here and I’ve gotten a good following from all of them. Whether they know it or not, they’ve been a big part of why I’ve gotten to where I am now, because all the fans have given me a ton of support and that’s important. That’s attractive to race teams; they know I’m personable and fans like me, which is great. I’ve been fortunate enough to have that. So I have fun with it.
You’ve been active in the Reddit world where there’s a lot of fans and a lot of people who support you. What’s that experience been like when you log onto Reddit?
Dude, those people are passionate. It’s really cool. It’s fun being part of their community. It started a long time ago when I wore one of the old Dogecoin shirts with Reddit on it and stuff. It was a Reddit-backed effort, and I thought it was neat, so I kind of jumped on it and I was wearing the shirt and then it kind of went viral amongst the community.
I’ve gotten a lot more active just because, for one, it’s fun and it’s kind of addicting. Those people are so passionate and they really are intelligent — they know a lot about (NASCAR). Heck, they know more about racing and what’s going on than I do! (Laughs) I learn a lot of stuff on there.
So it’s been cool with just how knowledgable they are, how funny some of the stuff is in there. In the comments, the stuff they come up with is absolutely comical, so it’s been fun to see how supportive those guys are. Every race I go to, I meet tons of people (from Reddit), and that’s a good bit of my following, which is cool.
I feel like you’ve genuinely embraced it. Sometimes I’ll be looking at a thread and be like, “Well, Matt just weighed in on that.” It wasn’t necessarily something about you and you weren’t specifically called to it; you just were clearly looking through the comments and decided to chime in. So you’re trying to be part of the community and not just when it’s about you.
Yeah, I just have fun surfing through there. There’s always interesting threads and reads on there, so I just kind of scroll through it like I would any other form of social media. I enjoy looking at the stuff people say. Some of it is really funny, but some of it is interesting. So yeah, I just go through there, comment, chit-chat with people, and start some threads every once in a while.
(A couple weeks ago) I picked up my new Can-Am Maverick X3, so I shared the thread on there with everybody so they could all see it. It’s been fun.
As we record this in Talladega, the All Star Race voting is not open at this moment (Note: It’s obviously open now). But when it does open, it’s going to be a short amount of time. Maybe that will help, because your fans will be able to mobilize for you and get you into the race.
Yeah, we’re lucky to have all their support. And Reddit, specifically, they have some really cool ideas on there, you know, things we can do and they’ve talked about wrapping a race car in a Reddit paint scheme if we get voted in.
So I took that idea and said, “Hey, maybe so.” We talked to the team and they were OK with it, so we got the approval on that. So we’re gonna get back to them and hopefully wait on the voting to open up.
But hopefully, we can lean on all those folks from all sorts of different social media outlets and all the fans. I think they understand our situation, that we’re a small team, and they really back it and support us a lot. It’s pretty overwhelming.
Did you ever get any sense of how close the voting was last year?
Yeah, it almost ate at me because of how close I learned it was. I think if Chase Elliott raced his way in, we would have gotten that second fan vote. So we were right on the border. It was very close. So it was cool for all those people who voted to get us that close.
You know, those people (like Elliott) drive for powerhouse teams, so it’s a lot easier for them to get a huge following and to get voted in with all the backing and support that they have and driving for a big team, while I’m a little guy. For us to get that close was pretty neat, so I feel like we can do it this year with everyone’s support.
Many have asked why the All-Star fan vote means so much to me. I made this video to show why we have been pushing so hard for the vote. pic.twitter.com/k9VxmzqXWu
— Matthew DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) May 18, 2017
Let’s talk about Twitter. That’s another form of social media, and you’re on there as well. How often do you use your Twitter account?
Every day, and I’ve searched through there, same deal. So every day, I try to interact with the fans, share all the funny stuff. Actually Ryan Ellis, my PR guy, got a good picture of me on the airplane that he shared on social media this morning of me passed out saying I was revved up and excited for the weekend. (Laughs) But yeah, I use Twitter a lot, probably as much as anything.
Is it something where you’re using it to stay in touch with what’s going on in the sport? What’s your primary reason for being on there?
I think there’s different groups of fans in each social media outlet. You know, one may fit some fans over others. So I try to cover them all so I can engage with all the different groups of people and fans. I don’t know if I have a preference on any of them; they’re all so different and they all have different groups of folks within each community. So I like to reach out to all of them.
You use Facebook and Instagram as well?
Yep! Both of them. So I’m trying to figure out which one I’m on the most. I’ve been hopping on Reddit a lot lately just because it’s kind of addicting. I’m probably on Twitter the most because I have the most followers on there, but I like Facebook for how easy the engagement is — you know, doing a Facebook Live and such. Instagram I’ve been getting into more. So I feel like I cover them all fairly evenly. I try not to focus on one and forget about the others.
What happens when you come across a hater or somebody that’s trying to get a reaction out of you, somebody trolling you? Do you ever use the block button?
No. I make fun of myself probably more than anybody could make fun of me, so if I get something like that, I usually roll with it or just make fun of myself some more, you know?
I have a theory in life: when somebody makes fun of you or tries to pick at you and make you mad, if you in turn make fun of yourself back to them, what do they do? There’s no response. I’ve done that to people who have made comments or have tried to make me mad, and I say something to make fun of myself and they’ll just sit there dumbfounded. They’re like, “Oh…what do I say now? That kind of backfired.” That’s usually my tactic.
That’s a good point. It sounds like in general, you find a lot of the positive sides of social media. It can be very negative at times, but it sounds like you have good experiences for the most part there.
Yeah, all good, really. You just have to be really careful in today’s world about what you say, and I like to be a pretty open book and share my personal life. You know, I don’t want my stuff to be really boring, straightforward and everything about, “OK, we finished here today in my Can-Am No. 32 Ford Fusion.”
Obviously, I want to share my performance and how we’re doing from the team side, but I like to give everyone a more in-depth look of, “OK, I actually own a Can-Am vehicle. I grew up riding, and that’s how I got into racing.” Or from the team side, just showing how hard they work behind the scenes. (Or) what I do during the week at home, my personal life, like going to the gym. Stuff like that, that’s more interesting and that’s the stuff I like sharing with people, so I try to use it as an all positive thing.
With being so open, I have to be careful a little bit about what you say, but I feel like I live a pretty basic lifestyle; I don’t do anything that would get me in trouble, so I’m pretty normal.
Except for blowing airhorns at people.
(Laughs) Yeah, OK. I should be careful when I say “pretty normal.” My friends and my wife probably wouldn’t agree with me on that. She’s sitting right by us…
She’s shaking her head right now.
Yeah, she knows better.
This interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race next month, please consider using my ticket link.
The reveal of this year’s All-Star Race format was more anticipated than usual for a few reasons.
First, Monster Energy is sponsoring the race. Getting Monster to put its stamp on the format had a lot of promise to be fresh and different.
Next, NASCAR and the tracks are enjoying an era of unprecedented collaboration with the drivers, with the exchange of ideas constantly going back and forth. Combine that with things like stage racing being introduced this year, and there seems to be an appetite for big changes in the sport.
So when the All-Star format was unveiled Tuesday afternoon, my leg was bouncing up and down with nervous energy.
They could do ANYTHING to the format! It’s a blank slate! What will be the big twist?
The answer: Tires.
Tires? Yes, tires.
Teams will get one set of tires that has a softer compound, which will theoretically enable them to go faster. If a team puts on that set before the final stage, the car has to drop to the back.
The tire twist is described as “a game-changer” in the NASCAR press release.
Look, I don’t hate this format. It’s just…underwhelming in a That’s it? sort of way.
A decade ago, the All-Star Race was special because it was the only time NASCAR had double-file restarts. Now every race has those. Then the All-Star race was unique because it had stages. Now every race has those, too.
So the fact there are going to be three 20-lap stages before the final 10-lap shootout? Eh.
I like that some drivers will be eliminated (only 10 cars make the 10-lap shootout), but it’s complicated to keep track of who they are. Three stage winners go to the final stage, plus seven drivers who had the best average finish in the three stages, which — HEY! Pay attention! You started to drift. Anyway, then the cars will be lined up in order of their average finish for the final pit stop, and the order for the final stage will be determined — HEY! Are you getting this??
OK, you know what? You’ll just figure it out when you’re watching.
The point is, with all the creative people and ideas bouncing around NASCAR these days, backed by a push from a new and innovative sponsor, the format could have been way outside the box and cutting edge.
Instead, they decided to have a race that is, in part, “an ode to the 1992 edition of the same distance.”
Tires, I’m afraid, aren’t going to sell any extra tickets.
I was scrolling through Twitter on Thursday afternoon Speedway Motorsports Inc. head honcho Marcus Smith dropped a funny tweet:
— Marcus Smith (@MarcusSMI) March 9, 2017
If you don’t know who Steve Luvender is, he’s the genius behind several NASCAR-related mini-sites — including the All-Star Race format generator. You can refresh the generator as much as you want and it will spit out unlimited (and mostly ridiculous) format ideas.
But there’s a little truth in everything, so I’m guessing this means Smith and NASCAR and whoever else decides on the All-Star format are in talks to determine how it will go this year.
If they’re open to ideas — maybe not to the extreme of Luvender’s generator — I have one to share.
How about a Battle Royal format?
Here’s how it would work:
— One driver is eliminated every five laps until there are two drivers left. So if there are 20 drivers in the field, it’s a 90 lap-race. The organizers can put mandatory caution breaks into the race if they want (caution laps won’t count), but the bottom line is the last-place car must pull off the track every five laps until there are two remaining.
— When there are two cars left, there will be a caution. The cars will start side-by-side (with the leader picking lane choice) for a two-lap shootout. The driver who was most recently eliminated (the third-place car at lap 90) will be allowed to participate in the shootout because NASCAR will need a backup plan in case the two remaining cars wreck each other. But that car must start the segment on pit road, ensuring it will be a half-lap behind and can only win if the leaders crash (which actually has a decent chance of happening).
So what do you think? It would be much simpler to explain than previous formats and would also be a lot of fun.
Yeah, some big names might go out early and not be around at the finish, but what race fan is going to turn off the TV when a driver is getting eliminated every five laps and there’s constant pressure to stay in front of the cutoff line?