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NASCAR: All-Star Race offers drivers another option

In the final 10-lap dash that paid $1 million in the Monster Energy All-Star Race on Saturday night, Kyle Busch got a good start and then hid from the pursuit, winning by a wide margin.

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Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Caramel Toyota, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, lead the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR All Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

In the final 10-lap dash that paid $1 million in the Monster Energy All-Star Race on Saturday night, Kyle Busch got a good start and then hid from the pursuit, winning by a wide margin.

It was a big night for Busch. He finally won a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in a Cup car, not to mention a boatload of money. But the lack of theatrics in a race known for them in the past did little to promote the All-Star Race.

There was, at least, clarity in the result instead of last year's scoring debacle. And there was some hope for the problems of everybody running the same speed on the 1.5-mile tracks and nobody being able to pass. The softer, option tire may not have produced a significant difference in speed and lap times. But according to drivers, the first use of two different tire compounds in the same race generated some new possibilities.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished a futile third to Busch, said he believes the teams in the garage generally had a favorable opinion of the Goodyear-built option tire.

"Personally, I don't have a problem with trying it," said the seven-time champion. "Really don't."

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The option tire is NASCAR's latest response to the universal millstone of motor racing known as "aero push." Whatever the series, cars are built with such reliance on modern aerodynamics that aero push plagues racing everywhere. The leading car has clean air and the trailing car has the dirty wash from the guy in front, making it difficult for even a faster car to pass.

Formula 1 uses a rear wing with a gap that closes on a leading car in certain designated portions of the track, creating more drag and a better opportunity for a trailing driver to pass. IndyCar uses a "push to pass" button that gives a driver a limited number of increased bursts of horsepower during a race.

Johnson thinks the option tire -- which these other series also use -- is a good route for NASCAR, whose participants are keenly aware of what happens in other major series. The option tires, he said, are "better than having a button that makes the wing go down or a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it's, you know, a good way, a competitive way, not in a gaming sense, just a competitive way to create different pace for cars in the field."

NASCAR ought to consider taking the next step and running some points races later this season with softer option tires on the sometimes problematic 1.5-mile tracks. The current low downforce cars, which have been favorably accepted by drivers and have produced some good racing, were introduced midway last season in "test bed" points races. Why not try the same with the option tires?

Kyle Larson, who finished second after winning the first two stages, also endorsed the option tire approach in Charlotte.

"I think in the future maybe they could bring a tire that has even more grip and more of a speed and lap time difference that we can visually kind of see that there is a difference," Larson said.

There was also talk in the garage about using the tires in points races.

"It would be interesting," said race winner Busch. "I heard (crew chief) Adam (Stevens) talking about it when I got in here. If they would utilize that option at points events, throughout different races, whatever, let us kind of have maybe a warmup set or two sets (for the race), use them when we wanted to or what-not. That's for down the road. So we'll see."

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Goodyear clearly erred on the side of safety for a Charlotte option tire that was created by engineers without any testing before practice began. Drivers who tried to go from the back to the front with the option tire in the first segment to get track position did not make much progress. Given a rule that a driver on option tires had to start the final segment behind those on prime tires, teams opted to use the options to try to advance prior to the 10-lap finale.

With more testing, Goodyear likely could produce a faster tire with good grip that is safe, has some staying power and doesn't drop off excessively over a 10-lap run. As it was, Johnson said the option tires in Charlotte had a few laps of giddy-up and then were about the same as the prime tires after they heated up.

The one glitch in the race procedure was Brad Keselowski staying out of the pits before the finale -- because he had run out of tires. Having bolted on a set of option tires earlier, due to a loose wheel Keselowski's crew had to take them off and replace them with primes. He couldn't re-use the option tires under the rules. When Keselowski started the last segment on the front row with worn tires, that gave Busch, who started third, the opening he needed to break away in the low groove and pick up $1 million.

There were post-race questions from the media about moving the race away from Charlotte, which is the headquarters of all but one of the Cup teams and makes it a better mid-season haven for the race. If it were to move, the All-Star event would need to go to a venue other than a 1.5-mile track. A race with short stages on any 1.5-mile track is likely to yield a premium on getting to the clean air at the front -- especially for the finale.

There is a precedent for pursuing option tires in points races. This year's lower downforce cars, which help relieve aero push on tracks where the segments are longer than the All-Star race, were developed by mid-season testing at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway and the 2-mile oval in Michigan.

If the softer rubber became an option from the start of the 2018 season after mid-season testing this year to ensure more decisive speed, then by time teams returned to Charlotte for next year's All-Star Race, the format would likely work better.

As it is, NASCAR's longest race takes the green flag on Sunday one year after Martin Truex Jr. led all but 12 of the 600 miles.

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By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

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