Top Dog: Erik Jones
No, you’re not dreaming. For the first time in 27 years, the NASCAR Cup Series has officially returned to the historic pavement of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
The 2023 rendition of the All-Star Race (May 21) was years of hard work in the making and a vision to get the Cup cars back on one of NASCAR’s most hallowed grounds.
Since eligibility for the race largely hangs on winning a race this season, winning a race the year prior or being a former All-Star winner, underdogs typically have to fight their way in through the All-Star Open or campaign to the fans in order to vote them in.
As for those underdogs who were able to qualify? Let’s just say they brought those Wilkes County fans to their feet. Erik Jones also brought a familiar sight, as his No. 43 came adorned with the STP colors that are synonymous with Richard Petty.
The car was spot on, but Jones did more than drive a beautiful car by earning a good finish in eighth.
After having to rely on the fans to vote him into the race a year ago, Jones locked himself in this year by virtue of his 2022 win at Darlington Raceway.
His weekend didn’t start out with a bang, as Jones started and finished at the rear for his heat race on Saturday night. But despite having to start 21st for the main event, running a Next Gen car that is difficult to pass with on short tracks, the No. 43 had flashes of “The King” from Petty’s day at times.
The start didn’t come without some classic short track action, as Jones got into Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 15, bringing out the lone caution for cause.
From there, it was a relatively quiet but smooth night for Jones, who quickly inserted himself into the top-10 picture. He kept his red, orange and blue machine inside the top 10 nearly the whole night and walked away with an eighth-place finish, marking the 26-year-old’s best result in just his fourth All-Star appearance.
It’s a strong performance Jones needed to boost his prospects with Legacy Motor Club. After two weeks with runs of sixth and 16th at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway, Jones has endured back-to-back results outside the top 20 in a year where LMC has struggled to find the speed they had in 2022. Heading to the Coca-Cola 600, where Jones only has one top 10 in the race, he hopes momentum will carry over to NASCAR’s longest race.
While it has been a disappointing start to the season for LMC, they were able to land both drivers in the All-Star Race. Noah Gragson made his All-Star debut in his rookie season thanks to winning the fan vote after failing to qualify in the Open.
But his night began with an uphill battle before it even started.
During the All-Star Open, Gragson took the entry into turn 1 too tight on a restart, making contact with the inside wall. The ramifications were rare for a NASCAR race, as Gragson ricocheted off the wall and back across the track, taking Todd Gilliland with him. The incident sparked a four-car crash that saw Gragson’s No. 42 car receive significant damage to the nose.
Fortunately, the team was able to repair it enough for Gragson to compete, but the damage affected him all night, leaving him with a 23rd-place showing. However, his “Mayor of Throttleville” campaign paid off and included a little message from an actual mayor, too, as he wound up advancing into the main event anyway.
Meanwhile, Stenhouse made his second consecutive All-Star appearance with JTG Daugherty Racing, but he didn’t fare much better than Gragson.
The No. 47 dealt with loose-handling conditions all night after the early spin, and Stenhouse fell victim to being lapped before the lap 100 intermission. Due to the long green flag runs and handling woes, he would go several laps down in the second half, capping the night off in last (24th), four laps down.
The Olive Branch, Miss. native should have optimism for the Coca-Cola 600, at least, as he has earned four top 10s in the last five editions of the race.
Who Missed Out
The All-Star Open was likely viewed as more eventful than the main event, with drivers slipping and sliding on old tires, comers and goers plus some good old-fashioned beating and banging to boot.
On the lap 49 crash triggered from Gragson’s contact with the inside wall, Gilliland was joined by rookie Chandler Smith and veteran Ryan Newman with their hopes of advancement dashed. Newman was seeking to make his 21st All-Star appearance after returning to part-time competition with Rick Ware Racing.
More drama rolled around later in the race between Michael McDowell and Ty Gibbs. After making the All-Star Race the past two seasons, McDowell had to attempt to race his way into the show this year. However, on the restart following the four-car crash, Gibbs shoved McDowell up the track off turn 4, causing McDowell to make contact with Justin Haley and send both into the wall.
The norm in the garage is that a driver doesn’t forget when he is wronged, and McDowell was no different. As Gibbs attempted to lap him with 23 laps remaining, the Front Row Motorsports driver let his frustration be known.
The damage relegated McDowell and Haley to 13th and 14th, ending both of their hopes to make the All-Star Race. Kaulig’s other driver in AJ Allmendinger would finish fifth, while the Spire Motorsports pair of Ty Dillon and Corey LaJoie would finish eighth and ninth, respectively, ending their chances of advancing. JJ Yeley (sixth), Josh Bilicki (10th), and Harrison Burton (11th) were the remaining underdogs who also were sent home early.
What They’re Saying
Newman (12th in Open)
Haley (14th in Open)
Small Team Scheme of the Race
This week’s scheme of the week was no easy task, as Jones’ No. 43 radiated with the Petty colors. But in the end, I had to go with McDowell’s throwback to Mark Martin. Just a couple of weeks ago, my racing inspiration (AKA, my grandfather) mentioned to me how he wished someone would throw back to Martin’s Folgers scheme he ran in the early ’90s.
While Bubba Wallace threw back to the scheme in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2016, McDowell’s scheme was the first Cup car to do so since Martin threw back to it himself in 2005. It may not have been the famed No. 6, but it sure contributed some nostalgia.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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