by Nate Ryan, USA TODAY Sports
CONCORD, N.C. -- Once hailed as the most distinctive and exciting of any showcase in professional sports, NASCAR's Sprint All-Star Race actually has become the most predictable.
Put yourself on the front row entering the final segment, seize the lead early in the 10-lap shootout and put your car in the wind for a $1 million payday.
It's how Jimmie Johnson won the event for the second consecutive season - and a record fourth overall - and even he concedes the spectacle at Charlotte Motor Speedway - which has featured one lead change during the final five laps in eight All-Star Races since the 1.5-mile oval was repaved -- needs fixing.
A solution is tricky.
"I really don't know what to do at this point," Johnson said. "I felt the four segments beforehand there's a lot of guys on different strategies, (and) that made for exciting racing. You're pinned in on a 1.5-mile track with a 10-lap shootout, your options are limited to create multiple passes for the win."
There was plenty of upside for Johnson, who positioned himself as the favorite to win his first Coca-Cola 600 since 2005 by breaking a tie with Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon for most all-star wins.
Just as Charlotte's fresh asphalt - which produces heavy grip, high speeds and minimal tire wear - hasn't been conducive to the fender-banging billed as an All-Star Race staple, it also hasn't been kind to Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, which once ruled the track in winning five of six races from 2003-05.
"The track is just so different now, and we had it (figured) out," he said. "We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork. We feel like we can find it again, and we're knocking on the door, but we're one of five (drivers) that can make something happen here now, where before we had a pretty strict advantage."
Other drivers who stamped themselves as 600 contenders over the weekend were Kasey Kahne (whom Johnson outdueled on the final restart), Matt Kenseth, pole-sitter Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, whose No. 78 Chevrolet might have been the most dominant Saturday.
Busch was the most recent driver to sweep the All-Star/Coke 600 doubleheader (in 2010), but the All-Star Race isn't necessarily a precursor for the longest race in NASCAR's premier series. By virtue of being split into five segments - none longer than 20 laps, or less than half a fuel run - it features none of the strategy plays that often determine the winner of Sunday's Coke 600.
"It's a lot different," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "You know when the cautions are coming (in the All-Star Race). You can kind of sit back and strategize. In a normal race, we have no idea what's going to happen. Having a fast car clearly and fast pit stops makes a huge difference, so if we can translate what we had in this race car (to) next week, I think we'll have a good shot at it."
Though the All-Star win was another testament to a history-making career that also includes five championships (and counting), Johnson admitted he likely wouldn't have won if his pit crew's swift work on a mandatory four-tire stop before the final segment hadn't put him beside Kahne for the final green flag.
Johnson and many drivers had warned of this scenario, and many postrace comments centered on how to solve it. Via an informal survey he conducted on Twitter, Clint Bowyer concluded Sunday that fans would like the event moved to Bristol Motor Speedway. A venue change might seem drastic for an event that has been held at Charlotte for 28 of its 29 editions, but myriad format changes haven't addressed the lack of late-race drama.
Knaus had another radical solution: Bringing an alternate tire compound that would be softer, which would wear more quickly on a Charlotte surface that has aged slowly and is much less abrasive than most tracks.
"When those tires fall off, that's when you're going to start to see some passing, and I think it could be very exciting to see who plays the tire strategy," Knaus said. "I don't foresee it because Goodyear is in a tough spot. They have to build a tire that's going to last. I'm just saying it would make it exciting, because the only way you're going to get passing is to have tire (wear)."
Follow Nate Ryan on Twitter @nateryan
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