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Larson Dominates on All-Star Weekend

The stands were jam packed. The crowd was raucous. The energy all around was one unlike anything we have seen in NASCAR in the last 20 years. North Wilkesboro Speedway made her long-awaited and hoped-for return to the spotlight this weekend as the NASCAR Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series graced the track with their presence for the first time since 1996 for NASCAR’s annual All Star Weekend.


A lot of the buzz around the weekend was centered around far more than the track. Most knew what to expect. They kept the same 43 year old racing surface that had been left to crumble and crack over the last 30 years. But, how would the old handle the new (the Next Gen cars)?


That question was really not answered until the main event.


In the Tyson 250 Truck Series Race, the obvious was made even more so. A track this old is going to almost disintegrate tires, whether it be slicks or the special treaded wet weather tire package. With the tire rubber coming off, the top of the track was not going to have any grip, meaning passing would not be easy.


Kyle Larson absolutely dominated the truck race, utilizing the apron at the very bottom of the track to get just enough grip to get his truck to navigate through lap traffic. I say that because he never really had to work his way through other traffic until the final 20 laps of the race, when he restarted outside the top 5 after the guys ahead of him opted to gamble and stay out on older tires rather than pit under the last caution.


Larson quickly made his way to the front, eventually having to battle with fellow cup driver Bubba Wallace for the lead. Bubba did what he is known for when he is at the front – he became a wall. It didn’t last long as Larson was able to clear him and managed to get a good jump on the final restart of the NASCAR overtime to win convincingly.


As well as Larson’s truck handled, he was quick to point out that the cup cars are a different beast, and that what he did with the apron of the track would not make for any advantage in the cup series cars. However, that turned out not to be the case. More on that later..


The two 60-lap Qualifying Heat Races for the All Star Race confirmed that the cup cars would run differently, and even threw in an added variable.


It rained shortly after the truck race, resulting in NASCAR making the decision to make the teams put on their wet weather package. These tires are treaded to channel out water, but not nearly as thick as the tread on a street car. It is not designed to last long – 25-30 laps at the longest, thus why this package can only be used on short tracks and road courses.


The racing was subpar in the heats, with the cars going single file just trying to find a line that works and save equipment. The tires, paired with North Wilkesboro’s rough asphalt were absolutely balded within 25 laps. Daniel Suarez went on to win the first heat after passing Chase Elliott about halfway through. Chase finished 7th after getting stuck in the top lane with no grip. Chris Buescher led the 2nd heat flag to flag.


Fast forward to the All Star Open, and the racing was much improved, as you might expect. There is something on the line, and worst case scenario, you wreck and don’t have a car for the race you weren’t in the field for anyway. Ty Gibbs and Josh Berry proved to be the 2 fastest in the field, with the 2 going back and forth while trying to hold off a lurking Aric Almirola. There was a big caution where Noah Gragson, who made the All Star field as the fan vote winner, went too low into turn 1 and bounced off the inside retaining wall at the exit to pit road, causing him to bounce back into traffic and take out 3 other cars. After more back and forth, it was Josh Berry who managed to win the open with Ty Gibbs getting the 2nd race-in spot for the All Star Race.


Now for the main event. From the beginning, we saw the same thing we have been seeing with this short track package mixed in with drivers trying to manage their tires. Daniel Suarez led the first 15 laps before Ricky Stenhouse Jr brought out the race’s lone caution that was a result of a mishap on track. Stenhouse went for a spin in the middle of the front stretch. But, he managed to keep it out of the wall. The race took a turn when during that caution, Cliff Daniels, Kyle Larson’s crew chief, opted to go ahead and pit for fresh tires, a luxury that would be needed to have a shot in this race. Especially given that they were running at the back of the pack at the time.


Cliff Daniels had this to say on the decision.


“I didn’t think there would be the kind of action that would bring a caution outside of good hard racing and because we were really far back, at that point, you have to do something different. In a points race, you have to be more conservative. But with the nature of the race (an exhibition/non-points race), we had to do something different and that was the perfect time to make the call.”


After the restart on lap 20, Larson, to put it simply, had his car handling like it was on a rail. He quickly established himself as the fastest car in the field, picking up 11 spots in 33 laps, and eventually slingshotting around Daniel Suarez for the lead on lap 53.


Larson never looked back from there. Kyle initially said that he did not think running down to the apron in turns 3 and 4 would work with the cup cars the way it did for him in the truck race. He was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually worked even better despite the low-riding high downforce next-gen cars.


“My car was good enough to where I could roll in with a lot of speed, I could check up my center in 3 and 4, and drive off really low off of 4. That was a line I found in the truck race. I didn’t think it would work in a cup car as well as it did. But it seemed even better in the cup car for me. I don’t know if it helped save my tires any, but I do think that low exit was where I could beat people.”


Larson established as big a margin as 12 seconds late in the 1st segment, and went on to defeat Bubba Wallace by over 4 seconds, never being challenged in the final 100 laps, going on to become the first Cup Series winner at North Wilkesboro since Jeff Gordon in September of 1996. The win also marked the 3rd All Star Race victory for Larson, each coming at a different track.


“It’s all equal to me. If I had to pick anything, winning at a historic track like this and being the first cups series winner since ‘96 is the coolest thing along with having your name in the history books with guys who are legends in the sport.”


Overall, the race was typical of North Wilkesboro, if you go back and look at footage of old events here. This track, much like Darlington, is one where you are not racing the other drivers around you, but more so the track itself. The surface destroys tires, there isn’t much passing, and there are a lot of long green flag runs. All 3 of those came to fruition tonight, making for a race that was not as interesting as fans might have hoped.


But, that didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans.


“The crowd feels more on top of you here than other tracks. It feels like the front row is right on the catch fence. Doing the front stretch interview, they were so loud and it was hard to hear yourself. It was cool and you could feel the atmosphere, even on Friday for truck practice. Typically you see like 45 fans in the stands on a Friday. I think everybody was excited to see a NASCAR national series run on the track here again. We were stinking up the show {by dominating the race}, but it was still cool”, said Larson.


The immediate future of North Wilkesboro is not certain as far as hosting NASCAR events right now, but Marcus Smith, the CEO of track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc, says that there are a couple of certainties – itn will not be repaved until they have no other choice, and it is here to stay, whether that be with a spot on the NASCAR circuit, or for use as a multi-purpose venue for concerts, grassroots short track racing, etc. So, the fans’ fervor has not gone unnoticed. Just like the success of the Racetrack Revival events did not go unnoticed by NASCAR.


Maybe, with the overall success of this event, North Wilkesboro will not only find itself a mainstay on the cup circuit, but also hosting points races, and that may come sooner than you think.

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