Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will Regan Smith Make the All-Star Race?

Will Regan Smith Makes the All-Star Race in Almirola’s No. 43?

Though Aric Almirola attended the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation’s Catwalk for Cause on Wednesday evening, looking sharp and healthy as can be, he will not be piloting his racecar this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In his place in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford is Regan Smith, who will make his first laps in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017.

In what is currently only a confirmed spot in the Monster Energy Open, Smith seems to be the face that will embody that racecar until Almirola is well enough to drive. The 33-year-old will use his 211 prior Cup starts to attempt to race his way into Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race.

What are his chances of doing so? You can’t question his credentials in getting this opportunity, as the 2017 Ford driver (with Ricky Benton Racing in the Camping World Truck Series) has not only competed in 10 Cup seasons, but has also been a substitute driver for drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson, as well as filling in for seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson during a practice session and qualifying round at Richmond International Raceway.

RPM has see gains since downsizing to a one-car team following 2016. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

So, this isn’t a new position for Smith, and he will also race in the Open for the third time, bidding for one of the transfer spots into the All-Star event.

However, it’s no mystery that RPM isn’t one of the better teams in Cup right now. Compared to Smith’s other fill-in deals, this is the most struggling team he has ever been a substitute for.

But things have looked positive both at Charlotte and in 2017 for Almirola, who has driven the No. 43 since 2012. The Florida native has raced the Open four times, finishing no worse than seventh. And the two races prior to Kansas Speedway, Almirola grabbed a top five and an XFINITY Series victory at Talladega Superspeedway, while posting a top-10 finish at Richmond International Raceway.

For Smith, this could be a good time to be rushed into an RPM Ford.

How Will New Format Push the NASCAR Field?

Nothing like a little something new! And what a time to give it a shot, as this Saturday’s All-Star Race at Charlotte stands as the premier non-point race of every NASCAR season.

With a format of lapped stages running at 20-20-20-10, there will only be 10 drivers on tap to race for the win in the final 10-lap stage. On top of the elimination game, the sport will see a new player with softer option tires making their debut in the sport.

It looks like stage racing has been a darn-near-solid format for each race this year. It has kept the racers and teams on their toes more often and have given fans more reasons to follow the action a little closer.

That’s just where the option tires will come in. I can feel the tension building from the crew chief’s handbooks this week as they all will try to hit it off better than the others. Will they find a loophole?

This format seems in-depth enough to counter any thought of one, but we’ve learned how much they play with any inch you give them. That alone will be great to follow.

With three stage winners earning a spot into the final stage, the other seven drivers will line up by average finish. Will someone choose to use the options to grab a win early? Or choose to take their chances, put them on late and start in the rear for the final 10-lapper?

Tires are important until one lucky driver starts their burnout. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

If you ask 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick, he thinks the option tires are not making their only appearance in our sport.

“I think it’s a great time to try it,” Harvick said on his Happy Hours show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday (May 16). “It’s something that can spice the racing up down the road. If it goes well, I think it is something everyone will consider going forward.”

And don’t forget the return of pit stop qualifying, which was canceled in 2016 due to rain. Will we see some surprise names toward the top?

There are enough questions here to fill out the entire column and then some.

Who Gets First All-Star Win, Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski?

They have led, contended, won stages and won races at Charlotte, but they have never won the All-Star Race.

We are talking about Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, two of the quickest drivers in Cup who each have zero victories in the event.

Will Saturday be that special night for either of them?

An early career victory at Talladega in 2009 gave Keselowski a guaranteed spot in the race until 2011, when he had to (and did) race his way in. Since then, the No. 2 Ford has led 108 laps in the All-Star Race, including nearly half the event two years ago, giving him the win in two of the four segments that night.

However, he hasn’t scored the victory when it counted, finishing a best of second in 2012 and most recently in 2016 behind Team Penske teammate Joey Logano.

With finishes of first, fifth, sixth and second on the 1.5-mile tracks this year, you can bet he will be in the conversation in the final 10-driver stage.

You can also put Busch in that same air, as he is not only winless in the All-Star Race, but also the entire 2017 season through 11 races. But boy, has it been close for the No. 18 car. In 11 career All-Star events, Busch has led in 10 of them, tallying 227 laps led since his first event in 2006. Shocking number given the race’s 80- to 113-lap length each year.

Despite this time out front, along with three poles, Busch only has a runner-up finish from 2011 to stand for it, along with one of the best laps of racing in the history of the event from 2009.

Will Charlotte Truck Race Be Redemption for Ben Rhodes?

Kansas isn’t the portal to the Land of Oz. For Ben Rhodes, it has become the Land of Learning through his short career in the Camping World Truck Series.

Following a chaotic last lap in 2016 that saw him crash Johnny Sauter and himself for the race lead, the 20-year-old came back with a little something to prove, contending for the top spot with Busch in the closing laps.

He passed the 2015 Cup champion and pulled a gap, on his way to victory before a blown motor killed his shot at his first win.

How will Rhodes bounce back from the worst disappointment of his career? Well, how about another 1.5-mile track? That should be a solid place for Rhodes to get over that Kansas result and to do it in style by finishing what he started.

Rhodes’ intermediate prowess spans outside Kansas, as he grabbed his only top-10 finish of 2017 thus far at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, a fourth-place finish in his No. 27 Toyota.

Perhaps Rhodes just needs a little taste of luck at this point in his career with Thorsport Racing.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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