The 2012 All-Star race was, from a competitive standpoint, dead in the water, a glorified qualifying session that's best forgotten by anyone who's not endorsing the million-dollar winner's purse. Decision time, though: Was this NASCAR's fault for setting up a new system that rewarded sandbagging, or was it a testament to the all-world racing skills of Jimmie Johnson?
Make no mistake, Johnson absolutely owned this race. He worked his way around Kyle Busch to win the first segment with little trouble, then spent the next 60 laps cruising around a third of a track behind the pack. Then, when it mattered, Johnson kicked off a splendid restart for the final 10-lap shootout and almost instantly left every other driver fading in his rear-view mirror. Game, set, match. The only drama outside of a couple brief battles for position came from the question of whether Rick Hendrick would accidentally fall out of the 48 car as it drove past the frontstretch grandstands.
So, yes, it was a dull race. But where do we place the blame for this? It's not Johnson's fault for being so dominant. First, look to the format: four 20-lap segments capped by a 10-lap shootout, with the winner of each segment getting the first crack at pit road before the final shootout. The new format gave absolutely zero incentive (well, an extra $50K, but that's laundry money to these guys) to the earliest segment winners to do anything but ride around and stay out of trouble, which is exactly what Johnson did.
"We were working on our car," Johnson said when asked about the strategy. "I was making sure I could get a couple good laps in and find the balance of the car. We were in heavy conversation about small adjustments, what we could do preparing for that final segment ... I really think whoever won that first segment would have done the same thing. It's just what you do when you can control the race like that. We took great advantage of it."
"The biggest thing you have to do in any event is you have to limit your risk," said Chad Knaus, the 48's crew chief. "That's what we needed to do. We were fortunate, like Jimmie said, that he was able to get out there that first segment and attack and get the win. From that point on, all you want to do is maintain and make sure you're there at the end."
The only real drama came in the third segment, when Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski battled for the segment win; Keselowski won by an eyelash. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the other two segments, but neither could mount much of a challenge to Johnson. Keselowski tried, but the 48 kept widening the gap until Keselowski needed a grappling hook to reel him in.
"You have to start on the front row to beat cars as good as the No. 48," Earnhardt said afterward. "To be able to compete with that team you have to start alongside of them, starting fourth was a little tough. We just didn't have enough laps really to mount any kind of a challenge. I mean, they were gone after about two or three laps."
And in the night's only true surprise, Bobby Labonte won the fan vote over Dale Earnhardt Jr. As it turned out, Junior raced his way in by winning the preliminary Showdown. (Yes, we can write "Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a race" without being ironic or factually incorrect.)
The evening's lone spark came from a minor dust-up between teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard. The two traded a bit of paint, and Harvick got loose trying to perform a retaliation that Menard didn't believe was necessary: "He ran me down low off of [Turn] 2," Menard said. "I have shown him nothing but respect since I got here and he hasn't shown that back. So, whatever."
So, whatever, indeed. We can point the finger at NASCAR all we like for this format, but the truth is that Johnson just outdrove everything and everyone around him. It's the equivalent of a home-run hitter putting a baseball onto a street 600 feet from home plate; you don't expect it to happen, but in the right circumstances, you can't be surprised when it does.
This marks Johnson's third All-Star win, tying him with a couple cats named Earnhardt Sr. and Gordon for the most victories in the race. And the fact that Johnson outran the best in the sport, not a collection of scrubs, shows just how serious, and indeed likely, it will be for five-time to become six-time.