In the NASCAR Cup Series’ return to North Wilkesboro Speedway after a 27-year absence, Kyle Larson – who won the Craftsman Truck Series race the day before – swept the weekend with a win in Sunday’s (May 21) Cup Series All-Star Race.
It was a dominant affair for Larson, as he led 145 of the 200 laps and won by over four seconds for his third All-Star triumph in the last five years. Larson was the only driver to win the All-Star Race at multiple tracks (Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2019 and Texas Motor Speedway in 2021) and has now added a third track and win in North Wilkesboro to his trophy case.
But What Really Happened?
With just one caution for cause with a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spin on lap 15, the field got strung out and stayed that way most of the night.
That caution proved to be the pivotal moment for Larson. The No. 5 Chevrolet started 16th and had fallen to 21st in the first 17 laps, but crew chief Cliff Daniels used the opportunity to bring Larson down pit road for four fresh tires on lap 18.
Larson sped on pit road, meaning he restarted the race on lap 21 as the last car on the lead lap in 23rd. But with just a handful of drivers on new tires, Larson cut through the field like butter.
The 42-year-old pavement soon gave the lead cars fits, and that allowed Larson – as well as the other cars that pitted for tires – to blow right by the competition.
Larson made his way up to the top three in just 30 laps, and he passed Daniel Suarez – who had led every lap of the race from the pole – on lap 55.
That was the last time anyone had a challenge for the No. 5 car all night, as Larson had built up a 13-second edge by the time the caution waved for the halfway break on lap 100. He maintained the lead after pit stops and the final 90 laps of the race went green, leaving Larson on a Sunday night drive out front.
That’s the way the race ended on lap 200, with the second- and third-place finishers of Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick using the same tire strategy as Larson to drive their way to the front during the first half. Chase Briscoe in fourth was the highest-finishing car that only pitted for tires during the halfway break.
Who Stood Out?
With track position and tire strategy playing as big a role as it did in the race, the split strategy on lap 18 proved to make or break the event for almost every team.
Behind a dominant Larson, the 23XI Racing duo of Wallace and Reddick looked strong in the second half. They used tires to make their way toward the front, but then held their positions when everyone was on equal tires in the final 90 laps.
Briscoe, polesitter Suarez and Chase Elliott ran in the front half of the field all race and finished there, while Joey Logano ran top five in the first half and overcame an uncontrolled tire penalty at halfway to end the race in 10th.
Of the three cars to transfer from the All-Star Open, Ty Gibbs had the strongest performance, as he ended the race in ninth as the highest-finishing Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Who Fell Flat?
William Byron and Kyle Busch were perhaps the biggest no-shows of the race, as they finished 20th and 22nd, two laps down. The pair struggled with handling and dropped back early, leaving their teams to gamble on fresh tires under green-flag conditions in the middle of the first stage. That roll of the dice didn’t work, however, and both drivers were trapped a lap down for the remainder of the night.
It looked like Denny Hamlin was going to be one of the contenders for the trophy early on, as he ran second behind Suarez for the first quarter of the race. But the handle went away from the No. 11 car as the laps ticked down. Hamlin ended the night one lap down in 13th with teammate Martin Truex Jr. right behind him in 14th.
After the race, Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart admitted staying out during the first caution was a mistake.
Better than Last Time?
There’s no direct comparison for this event, but while this one lacked action out front, it still felt better than last year’s All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. That’s not a high bar to clear, though.
But if there’s one takeaway from a race that did not live up to the hype, it’s…
Don’t jump to conclusions on North Wilkesboro after one race.
The reality is the Next Gen car has struggled mightily on short tracks, a weakness that doesn’t appear to be improving. Martinsville Speedway, of all places, was a clunker last year, save for some last-lap heroics by Ross Chastain in October. The Cup Series’ trip to Martinsville last month didn’t draw glowing reviews, either.
Whether it’s more horsepower, a different aerodynamic package or a dramatic change to the car, something needs to change because Sunday night wasn’t ideal.
Very few issues from the All-Star Race had to do with the track itself, because the Truck Series put on a show the day before.
In case you missed it, there were constant battles at the front of the field and it was far easier to make passes for position on equal tires than it was with the Cup cars. The worn-out pavement and timely cautions also allowed for mixed pit strategy, while the fans were treated to thrilling battles as drivers went from the back to the front and vice versa throughout the afternoon.
Plus, with NASCAR’s return to one of its most historic tracks, the place was packed throughout the weekend. When’s the last time a Truck race drew this big a crowd?
What also can’t be stated enough is that going to North Wilkesboro alone made Sunday worthwhile. The track was left for dead after 1996, and in the more than two decades that followed, having Cup cars return to the track felt like a dream that would never materialize.
It materialized and more on Sunday night as drivers, teams and fans gathered to celebrate NASCAR’s past and welcome back one of its oldest venues with open arms.
Altogether, North Wilkesboro’s return to NASCAR was a success aside from the action on Sunday night. There will be questions going forward about repaving the surface and the possibility for a Cup Series points race down the road. But if the Next Gen car’s short-track woes can be fixed in a year’s time, year two has the potential to be far, far better than year one on the Cup side.
Paint Scheme of the Race
While the official throwback weekend was at Darlington Raceway last Sunday, with Cup cars at North Wilkesboro for the first time since 1996, a handful of teams elected to run throwback schemes.
Two of them were Erik Jones and Michael McDowell. Jones’s No. 43 Chevrolet was sponsored by STP and resembled the iconic cars Richard Petty drove in the 1970s and 1980s. McDowell’s No. 34 Ford was a throwback to Mark Martin‘s Folgers Coffee No. 6 car in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But while both of the paint schemes were great, I had to choose the one that went all out by changing the number.
With the blessing of Richard Childress, Harvick ran the No. 29 – a number that he made famous with 23 wins in 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing – for his final All-Star appearance.
The car was designed to be reminiscent of Harvick’s first Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 2001 and it was complete with retro branding from Busch Light.
It’s hard to think of a better send-off paint scheme than that.
The Memorial Day racing tripleheader is just one week away as the Cup drivers will go to battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Coca-Cola 600 glory on Sunday, May 28.
While the Next Gen car has been a swing and a miss on short tracks so far, it has more than delivered on intermediate tracks; last year’s Coca-Cola 600 proved to be no exception.
It’s the Cup Series’ longest race and one of the most coveted trophies of the year. Stay tuned.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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