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Jimmie Johnson blitzes the field to win an oddly uneventful All-Star race

Jimmie Johnson blitzes the field to win an oddly uneventful All-Star race

Jimmie Johnson! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Once again the annual NASCAR All-star race failed to live up to pre-race hype.
   In fact the finish was as flat as stale champagne.
   For how many years now…
   And once again the aftermath was a hurricane of questions about how to 'fix' things.
   Can't blame winner Jimmie Johnson, though.
   Hard to beat 'smart' and 'fast,' and Johnson was both Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
   With $1 million on the line for the winner of a 10-lap sprint, and with this race's history of brutal, thrilling battles between guys like Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace, the all-star event should be pretty darned exciting.
   But this one, though it did have some good action, just didn't live up to its reputation.
   Of course it's been that way for many years now, for some reason, and despite repeated tweaks to the odd format.
   Johnson used smart strategy and a lightning pit stop and an awesome engine to blast away from the pack in the final 10-lap sprint to win the $1 million.


   Jimmie Johnson wins by a country mile. That's runnerup Brad Keselowski back on the horizon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


The new rules, in brief, required everyone to make a pit stop, under a competition yellow, just before the last 10 laps. And the winners of each of the first four 20-lappers got to make that key pit stop ahead of the rest.
   So Johnson won the first 20-lapper, to guarantee him that good pit stop, though it wouldn't come for more than an hour. And so Johnson, after winning the 20-lapper, dropped to the rear of the field and putted around, trying to stay out of trouble.
   Likewise, Matt Kenseth won the second 20-lapper, and also dropped straight to the back till the final 10.
   Likewise, Brad Keselowski won the third 20-lapper, and also dropped to the back.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the preliminary Showdown to earn a spot in the feature, won the fourth 20-lapper.
   Those four got breaks on the final pit stop. Johnson edged Kenseth out of the pits to set the front row for the last restart, with Kenseth and Earnhardt right behind. Kenseth was sluggish on the start, Keselowski got around him quickly, but Johnson was long gone, running a tenth of a second a lap quicker.

   Jimmie Johnson gives team owner Rick Hendrick a ride around to celebrate the win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Last restart I just couldn't get going," Kenseth said. "The outside lane had been tough all night."
   The strategy of no racing even struck the drivers as odd.
   "Jimmie won the first 20-lapper, so he didn't race at all," Kenseth said.
   "There was no reason to be racing up there. The goal (after winning a leg) was to run as slow as you could and still stay on the lead lap.
   "It is kind of strange to be just riding around back there, running slow for 40 laps and just trying to save the car.
   "But I'm probably the last guy to ask about the format: Good or bad, that's more for the fans to decide. Poll them and see what they like, and go from there."
    Perhaps the 10-lap finishing sprint was too short?
   "Is 10 laps too short? It was for me," Kenseth said with a wry grin.
   "The bottom was better at night; you really had to work hard running up high. There was no shot for me in just those 10 laps.
   "But then the fastest car was out front, and that's hard to beat."
    "It wouldn't have mattered if it were 100 laps, Jimmie was that fast," Keselowski said.
   "I'll race whatever rules they have…and I'll race as hard as I have to to win. And we were good enough to win one of the segments."

   Greg Biffle had quite a fiery scare when his engine blew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Kyle Busch started from the pole but was never a factor. He complained about a loose handling car.
   And Busch said he wasn't surprised by the way the night played out: "Nope, it went exactly like everybody thought it would -- Anybody who wins the first segment will win the race.  
    "We were just a little off.  About the only thing we could have done was stayed out between the first and second segments and seen if we could have
won the second segment. That was about our only chance.  
     "I was just so loose…really hanging on getting into the corners. And I couldn't finish the throttle coming off the corners the way Jimmie was; that's why he was able to beat me in the first segment.  I was out there, and he just ran me down and blew by us and took off: There was a straightaway from first to third."

   The final restart, and Jimmie Johnson, on the inside, squeezes Matt Kenseth high, into some speedy dry, to cost him traction (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For Johnson it's been a rush these past few weeks.
   Last weekend he won the Southern 500 at Darlington, giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career tour victory. And that was Johnson's 56th career win, pushing his past legendary Rusty Wallace on the all-time win list.
    And this was Johnson's third All-Star victory.
   "I'd love to win seven championships….and I'd love to win eight…and I want to leave my mark in this sport when I hang up my helmet," Johnson said.
   The Saturday night strategies were rather curious.

   "It's kind of hard to knock the format after the night we had," Johnson said.

   "When the rules came out, every crew chief in the garage realized how important it was to win that first segment."
   "The strategy was pretty easy after winning that first segment," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, said with a laugh.
   "I had to believe in the system…and I had to believe that whoever won that first segment would have done the same thing," Johnson said when asked about sandbagging much of the race.
   "You've got to be there at the end," Knaus added. "Even though it looked like he was coasting back there, he was running pretty hard.
   "And the different strategies made it exciting for the fans. I think it was a great show."
   One of the night's highlights was Johnson giving Hendrick a ride around on the frontstretch in victory celebration. However that wasn't quite the plan.
   "That was the dumbest thing I've ever done in racing," Hendrick said, somewhat embarrassed. "When I got in the car, I got my foot hung in the dash and couldn't get out."

   Jimmie Johnson, in victory, his third All-Star triumph (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Two of the oddest things during the race were dramatic blown engines by teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Both had fiery exits.
   "Fire is not good," Edwards, last year's All-Star winner, said.
   "I had red lights on the dash the whole time; we had it taped up too much, trying to get too much downforce, and we just broke it. We went all-out and it didn't work."
    However Edwards insisted he's not worried about his engines for the upcoming 600: "No worries with the engine.  That's the hardest we've run one of these engines in a long time. I've never seen that water temp and that oil temp for that long and have it live. So I'm pretty proud of Doug (Yates) and the guys that it made it as long as it did."

   A scary ride for Greg Biffle, until finally extracted from his car by safety crews (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Kenseth said Johnson used some good tactics on the final restart, to put him at a disadvantage.
   "My restarts seem to always look bad," Kenseth said. "But for some reason that bottom lane would really restart hard (fast), and the outside would always spin (tires).  
    "I was on the inside every other time, and that outside guy would go two or three cars back.  (So) I knew it was coming…but I honestly didn't know what else to do.  
    "Jimmie did the right thing -- He ran me up in the oil dry, and I couldn't get any traction. By the time I got in line, I was fourth, and with 10 laps you're pretty much done."
    The night's odd strategies?
    "We won the second segment, so the end of the third segment I ran hard for like six or seven laps just to check our temperatures and make sure the car handled like we wanted," Kenseth said. "I watched what Jimmie did:  They won the first one and didn't race at all for 60 laps, until the last 10.  
    "They seem to know what they're doing, and are pretty smart. So we hung back as well.  
     "There wasn't really any reward for racing up through there, because you knew you were going to come on pit road second. So once you got your last set of tires, the goal -- which sounds silly -- was to run as slow as you can and stay on the lead lap…because you knew everybody was going to do stop-and-go's (the last time in), and you knew those were going to be your tires for the last segment."

      Jimmie Johnson on the outside, Kyle Busch on the inside (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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