Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Even Kyle Larson admitted he stunk up the show in NASCAR’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, and he wasn’t exactly wrong: Larson won by more than four seconds, and at one point held a 13-second lead over runner-up Bubba Wallace.
But Larson didn’t start up front. He was struggling in the pack until an early caution allowed him to pit, a gamble which meant restarting at the back of the grid on Sunday (May 21).
Larson then drove through the field like a driver possessed, passing car after car. He earned the win; it didn’t come easily.
So, while the 2021 Cup Series champion didn’t leave much for the competition, he certainly got the victory the hard way. His number will now be on display on the scoreboard until racing returns to the track (hung by the same man who did it when NASCAR last raced at the facility). It just probably won’t be up there for 27 years. At least, that’s what the competition hopes.
And don’t forget… Josh Berry got his first taste of winning in Cup Series competition, taking the Open to transfer into the main event. Berry has been solid in his substitute role this year, albeit inexperienced in a Cup car. But Berry has plenty of experience on short, worn, difficult tracks with plenty of wins to show for it, and he was able to move through the field to 10th by halfway. He struggled on the restart, though, falling back after adjustments and finishing 15th.
Berry has shown his talent and versatility this season as a fill-in driver, sparking plenty of rumors about his future. He’s continually shown that he deserves a chance at a full-time Cup ride come 2024.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
By any measure, this year’s All-Star race was a success: a packed house, perfect weather, a full weekend of racing. But the truth is, it was already successful.
It was a success when the Truck Series race was in front of a huge crowd.
It was a success when virtually every ticket was sold.
It was a success when fans flooded the track’s website last fall to purchase the chance to buy tickets.
It was a success from the moment Smith told us that the track had not been forgotten, after all.
The moment of truth came long before the race even started. The roar of engines for the first time in nearly three decades was just the exclamation point.
In the afterglow of a nearly perfect race weekend, it’s clear that North Wilkes, a part of so much of NASCAR’s past, deserves a place in its future. Fans came in droves, the drivers were positive, and the atmosphere was electric on a perfect Southern summer night.
Marcus Smith didn’t put the time and effort into refurbishing the track and adding lights for the race to be a one-and-done. It’s close to home for the drivers and clearly what the fans wanted.
So, what’s next? Fans have been vocal about wanting a points race. The All-Star event is probably secure for a few years, but could the track see more? Smith would likely have to give up a race at another track to make it happen. There’s a spot on the schedule in 2024 vacated by Auto Club Speedway, but NASCAR owns that track and will likely move the event to one of its own properties or an independent.
Still, it could happen. And if it doesn’t, the All-Star race will get back a lot of the luster it has lost in recent years.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Daniel Suarez showed his short-track prowess all weekend, winning his heat race handily and earning the pole. And while he couldn’t keep up with Larson, he had a top-five car and ran a good race, falling back to finish seventh. Still, it was a good showing for Suarez, who has had some bad luck in 2023.
Heat two winner Chris Buescher struggled with the handling of his car, fading back early. As he fought the handling of his No. 17, he slipped to 16th in the final tally. RFK Racing has made big gains in the last eight or nine months, and there’s a good possibility that Buescher will be in the All-Star race next year to try and improve on his run.
Open transfer Ty Gibbs ran a solid, smart race, earning his way into the top 10 as the laps wound down. He finished ninth, and he has quietly been improving in his Cup efforts. He’s not the most outspoken driver at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s beginning to speak up on the racetrack.
Fan vote winner Noah Gragson suffered damage during the Open, and struggled a bit against the All-Stars, but he also didn’t get in over his head. He ran at the back of the pack, finishing 23rd, but that’s okay for this week, when there were no points on the line. He’s still learning, and that’s what he should be doing. It would be easy to compare him with Gibbs, but they aren’t running top-level equipment (that will change in 2024, but for now, Gibbs has an advantage).
When… was the moment of truth?
The one negative of the weekend had nothing to do with the track itself. After all, the racing surface is the same one that was laid down in 1981, by far the oldest asphalt in NASCAR. What was done with the track in just nine months is jaw-dropping.
But it’s a short, flat track, and racing at short, flat tracks has not been the forte of the Next Gen racecar. The ASA, CARS and Truck Series races were fantastic, while the Cup races were just OK.
Goodyear is working on a tire compound that will be run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway later this summer, a small step to be sure, but a step nonetheless. NASCAR is willing to listen to the drivers and make changes for 2024, and that’s the biggest piece, but the race did put a spotlight on the work that still needs to be done.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s back to points racing this coming weekend as spring turns to summer. The Coca-Cola 600 might not be the test of man and machine it once was, but it’s still no cakewalk. The Next Gen car provided the most exciting edition in years in 2022, and the Cup Series continues to put on great shows at the intermediate tracks.
That’s what needs to happen this weekend. The momentum from North Wilkesboro is good for NASCAR, but good races will still sustain it.
For fans, race week in Charlotte is always an extended party: many teams host fan events in the days before the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There are opportunities to meet drivers and see the different race shops.
Denny Hamlin was the winner of last year’s 600. Larson is also a favorite after his recent tear, but after 600 miles, it can — and has — come down to a late pass for the lead, or a fuel-mileage game with a surprise winner. The day-to-night transition means that a good car early might not be a good car after dark.
How… important was the return to North Wilkesboro?
The lines at the track souvenir hauler were out the proverbial door, fans were at the gates hours before race time … and these weren’t casual fans.
Unless they were caught in the sentiment of the moment, the race probably wasn’t one that casual fans put in vacation requests for months in advance or paid a premium for a weekend package. These fans were diehards, fans who remembered the races held at the track those 27 years ago.
They’re also the fans who have felt disenfranchised in recent years, and the ones who will pass on the sport and its stories to their grandchildren. That’s how the sport will gain fans who stick around.
NASCAR has also needed the kind of optics the weekend provided: packed grandstands. While 30,000 is a much smaller crown than many venues see for Cup events, the optics of full stands where fans are doing the wave, passing beach balls around and getting on their feet at every opportunity are invaluable. For the casual viewer, it’s reason to believe this is something truly special, and something worth watching.
The weekend was a reminder of how much fun the sport can be for fans, and that’s everything.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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