Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: The Next Gen Has a Short Track Problem, So Don’t Write Off North Wilkesboro After 1 Race

What Happened?

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.

See also
Kyle Larson Dominates North Wilkesboro For 3rd All-Star Win

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.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Pit Call Adds To Larson's Advantage

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.

Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski also fell two laps down on pace, while Chris Buescher – who led flag-to-flag in his Saturday heat race – could only muster a 16th-place finish.

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.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: Kyle Larson Subs for Alex Bowman, Wins Series Return to North Wilkesboro

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.

See also
Kevin Harvick's Farewell Tour Begins in North Wilkesboro

What’s Next?

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.

Follow @stephen_stumpf

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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Daytona-520

The only thing this race showed was that it’s possible to have an All Star at a track worse than Texas.

Last edited 4 months ago by Daytona-520
chastainfanbecausemoose

is it worse texas sucks. the car made it boring not the track. this is a classic track

Daytona-520

Well that’s great and all, but the current car is built for racing well at Texas not at here.

Carl D.

All the ingredients for a great race except a great race. Meh


chastainfanbecausemoose

problem is the car, the stupid car. has been since car of tomorrow. This is why everyone be switching to formula 1. A netflix show will save the sport, along with cutting stages, making the cars less spec and more stock, and cutting the worst part, the playoffs. Go to indy car point format to have a close championship. They have one every year.

Bill B

It was great to see the stands filled with rabid fans for a change, and it was nice to visit a track from the past, but once the novelty wore off the race sucked because this car sucks at short tracks. What a shame.

janice

i kind of knew this was going to happen. to much fanfare and hype prior to the race. dale jr and marcus smith saved north wilkesboro. ok whatever. it was good for the town as it brought in money to help their economy for the week.

during driver intros, the drivers interaction with the fans as they walked through the opening in the crowd was pathetic, in my opinion. i guess it doesn’t matter if you have a strong fan base now. used to be that the drivers appreciated the fans.

when the open was running i figured that was how the actual allstar race would be.

i think someone needs to sit down ty gibbs and let him know that he’s not as wonderful as he thinks he is. how he treats others is just as important as bulldozing on the track.

stop with the gimmicks fox……the oversized hats are stupid. it was great when noah had it in daytona for his sponsor, and noah can pull it off, just his personality.

Kurt Smith

If I were Michael McDowell, I’d probably get a penalty but Ty wouldn’t have finished the race.

Christopher

Some of these comments are funny…and grossly misinformed. North Wilkesboro racing was always a single-file, conveyor belt-type race track, with only a dozen or less cars left on the lead lap at the end. Apparently some fans today think that short track racing (or any racing) is supposed to be a crash fest.

Ricardo

You make a good point as most short tracks are one groove single file. But there wasn’t all that much short track move em outta the way action for passing either. During the prerace interview E jr said he wanted to see crashin (among other stuff) so maybe he is one of those fans.

TiminPayson

Agreed but this road race car just doesn’t work on a short track.

Bill B

Don’t want to see crashing but I do want to see cars able to get up to the back of the car they are trying to pass and, either ride right up their ass for 40 laps or move them out of the way if that’s what it takes. Hopefully they don’t wreck but just get sent up out of the groove. Single file with passing is a lot different than a single file parade.

I do have to admit though, I became a serious fan in 1997, the year after they ran the last race there. So, you are correct my expectations may not be fair. What I was really hoping for was for the racing to be like it used to be at Martinsville, before this sucky next-gen car was introduced. That’s what I wanted.

TiminPayson

Let the teams build a CARS type late model for tracks 1 mile or less. No spots for charters locked in. 75 cars plus trying to make the show. That could save NASCAR or replace it. Either way race fans win.

Ricardo

The idea to use a late model for these tracks crossed my mind too. I think it is a good idea.

Matty

Exactly my thoughts too. I’ve never seen a bad CARS, SSS, or PASS race yet and the Supers play under the same rules from one region to the other. Good comment!!!!

Mack

I was there the weekend and here is my take. I personally do not think it is the tracks fault nor the car.

The problem solely lies in the current horsepower with the cup cars.
The trucks were a second faster than the cup cars. Let that sink in for a little bit because the lower series should not be faster then the premier series. The trucks have almost 250 HP more than the cup series does!
These cars do not have the power to overtake the next car in front nor are they burning the tires off like they should be. Seeing it in person vs. on television quickly sold me on the problem. In fact, I ran into Todd Bodine and got a chance to talk to him. I asked his opinion regarding the speed difference between the two series on Friday. The response I received was mind blowing. He did not believe me until I showed him the practice speeds and he instantly shook his head and just said that is backwards.

Now onto the facilities itself. SMI did their homework regarding traffic and they partnered with Waze GPS. Depending on what lot you were in dictated which roads you utilized to get to the proper lot. I was in 20 minutes of traffic leaving at the end of the night.

The facilities were as expected with a lot of people however that was expected. Improvement’s definitely need better bathrooms and cellular service. If your looking for a modern facility then this is the wrong place to attend.

I saw Marcus Smith twice personally in the parking lot and also the grandstands which I thought was a class act. He was looking for feedback and opinions either good or bad so he knows how to improve.

My biggest takeaway from this adventure is the HP issue. I personally believe that when the power is restored to these cars along with some adjustments to the gears , the car has potential to put on a good show however it will remain this way until this change happens.

Again, this is my personal opinion and for what it is worth I will try to back my statement by saying I am an aerospace engineer so I would like to think I might understand this a little bit more than some.

Ricardo

All good points, but the horsepower won’t change with the current rules, so maybe the car needs to be a late model as discussed above, short track chassis with lots of HP?

Mack

I agree that they are locked with the rules. There are discussions regarding increasing the power however that is a year out due to sourcing parts.
In my opinion, if they increase power and open “some” options with gears I believe it would be the biggest bang for the buck in regards to a better on track product.

Kevin in SoCal

Definitely seems like its a lack of horsepower problem. What are they at now, 650? Lets try 800 on short tracks.
Also, I didn’t realize Larson sped on pit road and came back to the front from the rear. He just hit the right setup then, if he could pass everyone and run away with the field. Sometimes that just happens.

Mack

Larson was just on a different level period the whole weekend. I was on the front stretch and his exit coming out of turn 4 was lower than most coming out. He managed his tires better than the rest. When he was not leading, he was sat there for awhile and then when the tire falloff occurred he maintained his times stayed more consistent. He drive off was incredible!
Also remember that he drove a Spire Motorsports truck this weekend. That’s the reason he didn’t do burnouts after he won because he didn’t want to cost the team money and hurt their motor.

Echo

You might not of heard one of his interviews. He didn’t give it away after the truck race, but he did say the old cracked track was to his liking due to his dirt background. He had a wry smile, he knew he was going to be really good in the all star. Nobody else came from the back to the front, not even close. He knew all right.

Echo

Read my reply to Mack. He knew after the truck race that he would be great here. He wryly said his dirt experience would help him in the cup race. He loves this track.

Mike

Not sure it matters much but only 24 cars on track (60% of the normal field) led to fewer lapped cars / opportunities to bunch up the field.

Kevin in SoCal

Plus the all-star race is the top-20 talented drivers in the field instead of including the bottom 20 back markers.

Last edited 4 months ago by Kevin in SoCal
DoninAjax

How much do you want to bet that NA$CAR in their finite wisdom drops the HP on the trucks to slow them down? They always do things back asswards.

DoninAjax

The trucks should be on Sunday and the Cup contraptions should be on Wednesday.

NA$CAR has to give the drivers an actual “race” car that they can set up to suit the drivers. This is like F1 when Michilin designed their tires for the Ferrari and told the other teams “Make them work!”