Hamlin makes All-Star effort

Jonathan Ingram - NASCAR Wire Service Tuesday, May 19 1509
Denny Hamlin may not have abided by the precise rules of re-starts when he got the edge on the final green flag and won the $1 million payday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. But in the unusual Sprint All-Star Race format with so many variations on rules, why not a little hocus pocus by the race leader?

It might not have pleased runners-up Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, but a little trickery on re-starts is a time-honored racing tradition. It wasn't as if Hamlin did anything they themselves have not tried in the past (speeding up and slowing down, then taking off slightly early).

Perhaps there's a more serious question on rules that should be asked.

Hamlin knew that once in the lead, his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota would be hard to catch and pass. So Hamlin took off to a relatively anti-climactic finish unless one counts the fact it was the first win in the All-Star race for Hamlin, Gibbs and Toyota.

The current low downforce cars make overtaking mighty difficult on short runs once the leader is in clean air. If the trademark of a good NASCAR race is last-lap showdowns, should the rules for the current Gen 6 cars be altered?

It was a weekend of rules changes elsewhere. The Indy Racing League altered its aerodynamic rules the morning of Sunday's qualifying for the Indy 500 after the third accident within three days where a car lifted off. In this case, the IRL's efforts to introduce variety to its race cars backfired when teams found ways to gain speed that led to cars getting airborne. The idea was to get away from the spec chassis in favor of cars that look different from one another in other words to generate more fan interest in the sport.

Also, in the run-up to the Monaco Grand Prix, Formula 1 announced radical changes to its cars in 2017 plus a return to mid-race refueling. The new cars will look jazzier and be faster. The new package is also part of an effort to generate more interest in F1 following two years of steady slippage in TV ratings in response to what was a radical change at the outset of the 2014 season to hybrid-powered, V-6 turbo cars.

Both the IRL and F1 have demonstrated the perils of changing rules. It was a lesson that NASCAR learned with the Car of Tomorrow which may have been safer but came to be despised by fans. NASCAR had put a self-imposed deadline of the All-Star weekend for announcing further downforce reductions in 2016, but those plans are at least on hold.

Hamlin's runaway at Charlotte followed a similar finish to the preceding race at the Kansas Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson got away clean from Harvick due to a caution as opposed to the formatted 10-lap shootout of the All-Star race.

Try as the organizers might, the Sprint All-Star event predictably missed the mark due to a final 10-lap shootout that wasn't likely to produce many fireworks from the current low downforce cars. It seems all the teams knew the leader after the final pit stops would be the car to win.

Brad Keselowski even speeded purposefully on the pit road to beat Hamlin to the pit exit, thinking if he didn't start first he wouldn't win, potential penalties be damned. "I'd rather go down swinging than take a strike," he said of a move that clearly irritated his own Penske Racing team.

In addition to last-lap showdowns, the ebb and flow among a variety of drivers are key to sustaining fan interest and different winners. In that category, the low downforce Gen. 6 cars are scoring well. Over the course of a full green flag run, there's plenty of action for fans to follow.

There is the point of view that a faster car will prevail. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case on Saturday night for the quicker Harvick and Busch at the finish.

Give Hamlin further credit for moving up a lane in Turn 2 with three laps to go to blunt the chasing Harvick's momentum. It seems to have become a standard practice getting in front of the trailing car to use the aerodynamic wash to slow it down and it worked for Hamlin.

Give credit to the All-Star Race for putting more emphasis on the pit crews.

Qualifying included a pit stop and four-tire change and resulted in Hamlin getting the number one pit stall at the end of the pit road. And when the final stops took place, his crew got him out first with an amazing sub-11 second change of four tires. So in that sense, the Gibbs team richly deserved the $1 million victory.

Also, credit the race format for putting an emphasis on average finish in the first four 25-lap features to determine the order in which cars came down the pit road for the final, crucial stops. The "average finish" rule put a lot of emphasis on overtaking in the first four segments, which were long enough to create some ebb and flow. It bears mentioning, Hamlin opted for track position and took just two tires for his last 25-lap segment and came home third, which helped set up his "comeback" effort on the pit road. He entered sixth in line and came out first.

A longtime critic of the All-Star format's plasticity over the years, this writer found it to be an almost entertaining format, especially given the emphasis on the athleticism of the pit crews. Tradition dictates a final 10-lap shootout, but with these cars 15 might work better.

The finish was a chance to applaud a Joe Gibbs Racing team still struggling with the illness of its longtime president J.D. Gibbs, who was at the race while still battling symptoms of brain dysfunction. Even those not committed to the idea of a Higher Power had to like the fact Joe Gibbs spoke the invocation at a time when his family is relying on faith as much as anything.

The weirdo types, boo birds and NASCAR critics might say Hamlin got away with one on the re-start in order for the Gibbs team to get the limelight. While there's enough evidence of selective enforcement over the years to fill, well, an entire scripture book, sometimes things just work out for a feel good story line.