1. All-Star Weekend Made People Fall in Love with North Wilkesboro Again, But Was That Enough?
Everything about staging the NASCAR All-Star Race at historic North Wilkesboro Speedway was great. Fans ate it up, no surprise since the venue last hosted a NASCAR race more than 25 years ago and was long since left for dead. Drivers were excited to compete there, and why wouldn’t they be? None of them had likely ever dared dream it was a possibility.
There was only one aspect of the weekend that introduced any clouds to the otherwise blue-sky story of North Wilkesboro’s return, but it was a fairly big one: the race itself was dreadfully dull.
Kyle Larson fans will likely disagree, since they saw their driver lead nearly three-quarters of the 200 laps on Sunday (May 21) night. There’s no denying, however, that if you didn’t watch the last hour of the race, you missed pretty much nothing.
By itself, that’s not a big deal. There are stinkers in every NASCAR Cup Series season, but this one was especially unfortunate given the otherwise tremendous story that is North Wilkesboro’s revival.
It was also a high-profile example of NASCAR’s problem du jour, the Next Gen car’s seeming inability to offer entertaining racing at short tracks. At just 0.625 miles, North Wilkesboro falls square into that category and seems to have been swept into the most vexing question the sport’s governing body faces.
The answer ties directly into the track’s future in the sport. Nostalgia and goodwill appeal to stock car racing’s traditional base, the fans who often appear forgotten as NASCAR continues its eternal search for what’s next, combine to form an intoxicating mix that suggests an actual points race should be on the table for North Wilkesboro.
Fans will probably forgive the first boring race there for all the same reasons we just saw play out. But no number of fuzzy feelings can keep them engaged year after year if NASCAR doesn’t improve its racing product at short tracks, and nothing would be sadder than this venue returning just to fall victim to apathy.
2. If Kyle Larson Isn’t the Greatest Racer Alive Right Now, Who Is?
Larson’s dominance during the All-Star Race was simply another of many feathers he’s added to his cap over the last few seasons. Here was a track he had never raced on, ostensibly against the best stock car drivers around, and he turned it into a laugher. To boot, he swept the race weekend, also winning the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race, one in which he wasn’t originally supposed to compete in at all.
His continuing dirt track exploits are the stuff of legend. Larson is also going to tackle the Indianapolis 500 next year, and at this point, no one would be shocked if he runs well.
It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to compare drivers across different forms of motorsport, but Larson did win the 2022 ESPY Award for Best Driver, beating out nominees from Formula 1, IndyCar and even NHRA. That suggests that he’s the best all-around driver on the planet right this second.
Who else has a claim? Certainly Max Verstappen, the back-to-back defending F1 series champion. Given the fact that many consider Formula 1 the premier form of auto racing in the world, it would be silly not to have him in the mix.
But could Verstappen transition to other forms of racing as effortlessly as Larson? Or better yet, would he do better dabbling in NASCAR than Larson would in F1?
Will Power, last season’s NTT IndyCar Series champion, is an excellent wheelman, but it doesn’t feel like he’d receive much support for “Best Driver in the World.” My personal racing knowledge doesn’t extend to rally racing, but Sébastien Ogier, the eight-time world champ, would likely get some votes.
Still, when you have to work this hard to come up with contenders, that proves Larson’s claim to the title. He’s absolutely right in the thick of the discussion.
3. Ty Gibbs Almost Had His Reputation Repaired
Ty Gibbs finished the All-Star Race as the highest finisher among the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. That should be the takeaway regarding his performance at North Wilkesboro.
Instead, the discussion has mostly been around his run-in with Michael McDowell during the All-Star Open.
McDowell is too nice a guy to just go off on Gibbs on live TV, but when he said “Ty just plowed into me,” that’s suboptimal.
There’s no question that as he rose through the NASCAR ranks, the book on Gibbs was that he was undeniably talented but also prone to being impatient and overly aggressive — tendencies exacerbated by being unapologetic after the fact.
His rookie Cup Series campaign has been mostly free of similar kinds of dust-ups, and with Ross Chastain drawing all of the ire over on-track incidents, Gibbs has been able to stay under the radar. Maybe he figured it was the Open so no points were at stake and just figured “What the hell?” But when you tick off McDowell of all people, it’s worth filing this away in case it’s not just a one-off lapse.
4. Will People Pay to Watch Xfinity?
Insert your joke here about how many of us already do. In this case, we’re talking about the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which Sports Business Journal says NASCAR is shopping to potential partners with an eye toward making it a streaming-only series. The Journal says at least two companies are interested, one of them being Amazon.
From the perspectives of both the sport and streaming companies, this appears to be a no-brainer. NASCAR’s previous broadcast rights deal was signed before streaming surged in popularity, so having someone willing to pay for the Xfinity Series instead of simply lumping it in with the Cup Series on TV is like found money.
Similarly, it’s not hard to see why Amazon or other streamers that don’t currently have much if any live sports would want to give it a shot. The article notes that it’s possible a midsummer package of Cup Series races could be part of the deal as well.
The questions are all on the fans’ side. Having to pay extra got something you are accustomed to getting for no additional charge is always a pain point, and is anyone going to subscribe to Amazon just to see Xfinity Series races? That feels like a stretch.
Still, this isn’t even a discussion about the future of sports programming because it’s already very much here. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and the reaction to it from all sides: NASCAR stakeholders, streaming partners and fans.
5. Ford is Going to Win More Races This Year, Right?
Just a quick reminder that as we sail off into the second half of the Cup Series season, Ford drivers have combined to win exactly one points race: when Joey Logano claimed the checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It’s not exactly a cause for panic, as if the playoffs began today, there would be six blue ovals in the field of 16, more than any other manufacturer. It’s just that the number could easily slip if other drivers grab a few wins and Ford doesn’t, and it’s just sad to go 1-for-13.
The next few months are either going to compound the misery or prove it was only a matter of time, but this is a number one would think Ford would desperately like to see a change in a hurry.
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