What few predicted, though, was that the new format would encourage drivers to take it easy for portions of Saturday night's $1 million race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now fans are upset winner Jimmie Johnson essentially sandbagged for 60 or so laps before turning it up for a final charge to his third All-Star race victory.
"Everybody knew if you could win that first segment, you could control the night," said Johnson, who indeed won the first of four 20-lap segments.
Under the format for this year's race, the winners of each of the first four 20-lap segments lined up 1-through-4 for the mandatory trip down pit road. Once there, it was a race to simply be the first drivers to get back on the track for the final 10-lap sprint to the finish.
So Johnson claimed the first segment, then faded to the back of field for next three segments. Matt Kenseth joined him at the rear after winning the second segment, and although Brad Keselowski was reluctant to follow the same strategy, he also went to the back when his team insisted it was the best strategy after the third segment.
"Obviously there was a debate whether or not to run hard or conserve your stuff," Keselowski said. "I hate conserving race cars. They're meant to run hard. I just wanted to make sure that everybody on my team was on the same plan, and they were. So I've got to do what they tell me."
It wasn't all that popular for race fans, who seemed nonplussed by the three-wide racing through the pack that accentuated several of the opening segments. Instead, many seemed annoyed that Johnson, Kenseth and Keselowski had no incentive to race once they won their segments.
Johnson, who claimed "when the rules came down, every crew chief in the garage area realized the importance of that first segment," was reluctant to criticize the latest All-Star race format. It was the eighth change to the format since the race was created in 1985.
"That's going to be tough for me to knock the system after how our night went because it just worked out exactly how we'd hoped," he said.
But NASCAR has long touted its All-Star event as the only one in professional sports where the participants actually try hard, and Saturday night managed to discredit that theory.
It was clearly difficult for runner-up Keselowski, who made a solid attempt at sugarcoating the strategy of just riding around at the back of the field. He didn't seem all that believable, though, following his second-place finish.
"I'll race whatever rules you have," he said. "I'll race as hard as it takes to win. That was what it took to win. So, you know, I can't say I feel great about it. Happy that we were good enough to win one of the segments." SI.com