In the infamous Rick James episode of Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle (as James) says “It’s a celebration!” in regard to a night out at Studio 54. While North Wilkesboro Speedway is a far cry from a legendary nightclub, last weekend was every bit of a celebration as North Wilkesboro came back to life.
NASCAR All-Star Open
Schedule-wise, there wasn’t really much of a pre-race show prior to the NASCAR All-Star Open. As a result, I was surprised that viewers got much of a race preview. What we did see broadcast-wise was a general idea as to how the evening was going to go in the booth.
Quite frankly, it was a bit of a mess in the booth as you had people coming in and out all night long. For the Open, Jamie McMurray joined Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer up there. McMurray is an easy presence in the booth. Being a regular in covering the sport via NASCAR RaceHub, he’s tuned in to what is going on and explains things quite well. Not a bad choice.
The Open itself had some decent action and some questionable decisions on track. Two questionable moves stand out. One is the crash that Noah Gragson created by turning his own car into the inside wall entering turn 1 and smacking the wall.
When I first saw the track in action Saturday (May 20), I was thinking that something along these lines could have been in the cards. Previously, North Wilkesboro was known for having one of the sketchiest pit road setups in Cup. If you’ve seen anything to do with iRacing’s retro version of North Wilkesboro, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no wall there between the hot pit lane and the crews. They didn’t build that until 1988. The pits around turns 3 and 4 were built in 1995. At that time, only 36 cars started there. The final year on the schedule had 38, but the first two stalls were taken out of service, as seen here.
The explanation given for the wall extension on the broadcast was to cover all the stalls. While that is true, what wasn’t mentioned is that it was actually added because the pit stalls taken out of service after 1994 were reincorporated.
I have no idea what Gibbs was thinking here. So unnecessary.
NASCAR All-Star Race
For the All-Star Race, Darrell Waltrip made his return to the broadcast booth for the first time in a year. Waltrip, now 76, is generally enjoying retirement in Tennessee. What is absolutely clear is that he was overjoyed that North Wilkesboro was back in action.
What was also clear were a couple of other things. He’s still completely convinced that he won the 1990 First Union 400, and is rather testy about it. However, that appears to be false. YouTube content creator NASCARman and LASTCAR.info editor-in-chief Brock Beard covered the issue last year.
NASCAR indeed screwed up by picking up Dale Earnhardt incorrectly as the leader under yellow when Kenny Wallace (making his Cup debut) crashed out. In reality, Brett Bodine, by virtue of an excellent pit stop under green and 11 laps with fresh tires before Earnhardt’s stop, had taken the lead. That didn’t stop Waltrip from proclaiming that he has 11 North Wilkesboro victories.
Second, Waltrip is still very much partial to certain drivers. For instance, he went on during the broadcast about the (legitimate) talent of Josh Berry and tied it to experience at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, proclaiming that the banked short track made him what he is today while also touting his own skills there.
In addition to having Waltrip in the booth, Larry McReynolds (the winning crew chief of the aforementioned 1990 race) was there as well. Here, McReynolds was there in his technical expect role and added in some analysis as well.
I am not a fan of having four different people in the broadcast booth at any time. It tends to turn a broadcast into a mess as everyone wants to get in edgewise. There’s no benefit to anyone.
There were short pieces during the broadcast where FOX NASCAR made note of bringing the original [booth] trio back together. Perhaps this could have been a night to give Bowyer the night off from his booth work and have Waltrip call the race with Joy and McReynolds.
Unfortunately, the way Sunday (May 21) night’s race worked out, it wasn’t the most competitive race out there. I knew going in that the race was likely to have some long green-flag runs. The last nine points races at North Wilkesboro had six yellows or less over a 400-lap distance, including a caution-free race in the fall of 1992 held on a Monday. As a result, two yellow flags in 200 laps were not shocking to me.
Bowyer’s idea of cautions shaking up the pit strategy in the second half of the race really didn’t make sense. That is because of a rule that only allowed one four-tire change after the mid-race competition caution. The way tire wear was in North Wilkesboro, if you got a caution 25 laps in and didn’t pit, you were likely getting lapped if another yellow didn’t show up almost immediately.
The Next Gen car is still a work in progress on short tracks and Sunday night’s race showed that. Not being technical in nature, I’m not really sure what the next step would be to fix that, outside of mandating narrower wheels and tires to cut the contact patch.
The lack of action late in the race really showed on the broadcast as Bowyer became audibly bored on the broadcast. Not the first time we’ve seen it out of him.
Bowyer arguably is the voice of the fans here. He’s desperate for more action, but it seemingly wasn’t coming. That said, I think there was more action than what we actually got to see.
With the lack of yellows, there was a decent amount of time for post-race coverage. Viewers got a few interviews and post-race coverage. The general tone was happiness, but frustration.
Prior to the race, viewers got two features. One had McMurray sitting down with Ross Chastain. Given the last month or so, you can imagine exactly what the topic of the conversation was.
Chastain seemed to be defensive for the entire interview. He doesn’t seem to want the black hat here. At the same time, he finds it very difficult to change the way he races since that’s how he got to where he is. There have been a number of drivers that have been in his position before. He’s had to overdrive his equipment for most of his career. That’s most of why he’s gotten into trouble so much. If he drove to his equipment’s potential, he might not be in Cup right now, let alone leading the points.
Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham also sat down to talk about the final Cup points race (for now) at North Wilkesboro, the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400.
Here, we learn about how Gordon felt about racing at North Wilkesboro. There was also a “trick rear suspension” on Gordon’s car. Wonder what was tricked out about it. They don’t go into specifics, but it apparently was only legal for three weeks. Makes you want to know more.
It was an interesting look bad on the final race there. It was a track where veterans won. Gordon was the youngest full-time driver in Cup in 1996, so even though he’d won 19 races by then, he was still looking for respect.
Overall, the broadcast was just too busy in the booth. Can’t have four or more people up there. I want NASCAR to figure out the short track product with the Next Gen car. That could possibly determine the future of a lot of different venues.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the sweetest weekend of the year. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in that order. You can keep yourselves occupied on Sunday for nearly 18 hours with nothing but racing. TV listings can be found here.
We will have a critique of the Coca-Cola 600 and Indianapolis 500 in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex will cover the Tyson 250, the wreck-strewn NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.
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About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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