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2024 NASCAR All-Star Weekend:Part 1

It has now been a full year since North Wilkesboro Speedway had its triumphant return with last season’s All-Star Race – an event that was met with rave reviews. However, the race itself? Not so much. The much-anticipated weekend was another victim claimed by NASCAR’s ongoing woes with the short track package that have all but killed the very thing that the sport was built on 75 years ago.

 

There was no passing and drivers were hugging the bottom of the track through the turns struggling to find grip on the extremely worn 40+-year old asphalt. Kyle Larson managed to work his way from the middle of the pack to the front and ran away from there to lead the entire race. Not only did he dominate the entire all-star race but he also led most of the truck series race en route to sweeping the weekend. Without a doubt, unless you are a huge Kyle Larson fan, you left the track somewhat disappointed after last year.

 

This year, NASCAR has made a few strides in trying to solve the NextGen car’s issues with short tracks. The big storyline coming into the week was the “tire option” the race teams had. In addition to the normal harder tire compounds on a typical Goodyear racing radial and the misnomered “wet weather” tires, Goodyear introduced a softer tire specifically designed for short tracks called the “option tire”.

 

The intent behind the new tire was to complement the other storyline coming into the weekend – the new asphalt. In the interim between this weekend and last year, the track underwent its first repave since 1981. The asphalt used for the job was the same mixture used for the repave of Atlanta Motor Speedway – specially designed to be “race ready” by accumulating rubber quickly so as to improve grip and consequently, the racing.

 

So far, short track races in which the tire run has been softer have shown to be an improvement. The Spring Bristol race back in April, though unintentional according to Goodyear’s reps, was by far one of the most entertaining in recent history with drivers excitedly saying that for the first time, it felt as if the outcome of the race was left up to their skills both in driving and tire management. The softer tires literally were disintegrating and leaving piles of rubber at the top of the track. But the race was competitive.

 

The same happened at Richmond back in early April. Rain forced NASCAR to mandate teams use the lightly-treaded wet weather tire until the track was fully dry. The tires, being softer, had the same drop-off issue as the ones used at Bristol. But, for a track that is notorious for being “follow-the-leader”, there were multiple grooves and plenty of side by side racing throughout the field up until the teams were allowed to switch to the normal radials.

 

The results from Friday night’s practice have shown that the “option” tire is much faster. Most of the cars were running 18 second laps – nearly a whole second faster than a year ago, and there was grip all across the track once it rubberized. It also, as you might expect, has a very quick fall off. You get grip and more speed, but because the tire wears quicker, the speed falls off within around 15 laps, making one thing clear: that tire strategy is going to be big.

 

Joey Logano won the pole in a very penalty-laden qualifying/pit crew challenge event with a time of 1:29.754, which from a certain point of view, may have given him an edge the other drivers would be envious of in the main event Sunday night.

 

“Being out front helps tire wear. No doubt. You can run at your own pace and you’re not using up your tires in dirty air and all that type of stuff”, said Logano following qualifying on Saturday evening.

 

“I don’t think the strategy is very clear yet. We got 50 minutes of practice. I went through a set and ran as long as I felt comfortable out there. Looking at the data afterwards, it’s still not super clear what we should do. A lot of the strategy depends on what place you’re running and all that but it’s not as clear as you may think when it comes to when you’re going to put the softs on. There’s a lot of questions about it. Hopefully they’ll {tires} last longer than the next guy’s. That’s like outrunning a bear. Just gotta go faster than the slowest guy.”, he later added.

 

Aside from the new asphalt and different tires, the first major storyline from the weekend would be the weather. You know the old saying. “If you’re in a drought, schedule a NASCAR race.” Rain had already forced the postponement of the CARS Tour Late Model races earlier in the week. But on Saturday, which started with some scattered morning showers, took a dark turn once the Cup Series qualifying and first stage of the Craftsman Truck Series race happened. After getting 81 laps of the truck race complete, a lightning strike nearby prompted a red flag that ended up carrying over into Sunday morning as the strong storm dumped 5 inches of rain on the track in 1.5 hours, which flooded pit road and turned the parking lots into mud bogs while also downing trees around the facility, knocking power out for the rest of the day.

 

After a 21 hour pause and the cancellation of the Cup Series heat races, activity finally resumed Sunday morning at 11:30 when the green flag dropped for the final 2 stages of the truck race, which Corey Heim won handily after working his way to the front from 13th at the halfway point. Despite Heim’s dominance of the final stage, the truck race otherwise exemplified the potential of the new asphalt with great racing throughout the field, but with one key point not to be ignored – the trucks did not have a tire option. They were running the hard compound.

 

“Track position is huge. We found out pretty quickly that it was going to be a track position-based race. Our truck was really good and we were able to find some lines and grooves that worked for us and recovered. I don’t think tires helped much. I think the truck being really good was most of it. After yesterday, we were on 2 tires and the 98 was on no tires and he still pulled away from us on restart. That’s when we knew tires weren’t important & we made our bed on the 4 tire strategy. I was able to drive to the front with a good truck. But if everyone is going the same speed, it is nearly impossible to do that”, said Heim.

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