Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Larson had more track time than any other driver on Saturday night, winning the third and final stage of the Open to make the All-Star event. From there, Larson raced smart, biding his time but racing aggressively enough that he was able to take advantage of a three-wide run up the middle in the final stage, getting a massive push from Kevin Harvick to take the lead. Larson then went on defense, taking away Harvick’s preferred lines as the race drew to a close.
The question now becomes whether Larson can turn this win into some positive momentum. He hasn’t won a points race since 2017, despite coming close several times last year. Currently 15th in driver points, he could be squeezed from the playoffs if there are enough different winners or winners outside the top 16, so he needs to turn things around when it really counts.
Amid rumors of his race team’s demise this week, Bubba Wallace showed fans that he’s a talented driver on Saturday, winning his way into the All-Star event in the second segment of the Open after a battle with Alex Bowman (who also transferred on the fan vote). But when some wrote off his underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports team before the All-Star Race even began, Wallace never did. He raced his way into the top five and stayed there, holding off several of the best cars and drivers in the Cup Series to finish a strong fifth. Whether the RPM team has what they need to run up front for a full race might be a story for another day, but on Saturday night, Wallace showed he could race with anyone.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Was it the best All-Star race ever? No. Was it the worst? Nope. This year’s edition was an OK race with a decent battle for the win. After last week’s race at Kansas, which was one of the best of the year to date and a good race by any standard, I saw a fan on social media call the race boring because there wasn’t a side-by-side battle to the line for the win.
That gives pause because it’s a completely unrealistic expectation to have that kind of finish every week. It’s never played out that way on a weekly basis because that’s just not how the sport works. And while there’s no denying that some races do leave something on the table right now, expecting every race to be an instant classic is a setup for disappointment.
The reality is that there are good races and not-so-good races. Disparaging the good ones for petty reasons, just to follow the current trend of showing expertise through negativity, serves no purpose. Take them for what they are. The races that don’t live up to expectations are disappointing. Everyone knows that. But lumping in the good with the bad because it wasn’t perfect doesn’t help anything.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
The first Open transfer, William Byron, had a decent night. But after a bold move to win his transfer spot, he didn’t have the same spark in the main event. Byron’s ninth-place finish was third among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, nothing to write home about, but his race overall was solid if unspectacular. Running in the top five at times, Byron showed aggression and control, just not enough speed to contend.
Defending All-Star winner Harvick easily had the best car in the field on Saturday night but lost track position after pit issues were too costly. He was able to mount a charge back to second, closing on Larson in the final laps, but wasn’t able to get by Larson and the clean air he enjoyed.
Four-time All-Star winner Jimmie Johnson had a fairly miserable night, tangling with Martin Truex Jr. and later being unable to capitalize on good pit work that gained him spots for restarts. Johnson finished an uninspired 14th.
Not unlike Harvick, Cup champion Joey Logano had a fast car and led 19 laps, tied with Harvick for the most of the night. Also not unlike Harvick, Logano struggled with track position in the final segment, driving up to fourth but not being able to battle for a win.
When… was the moment of truth?
The draft played a role in Saturday night’s racing, as NASCAR had hoped for with the current rules. It was most evident when Larson made what would be the winning pass, as Harvick shoved him between cars to the front. It was a move reminiscent of Daytona or Talladega, but it worked at Charlotte this time.
If this car was a glimpse of the promised seventh-generation Cup car, will what we see be different from the current version? And how different should it be? As much as many would like to see a completely different approach, how wild of a swing can NASCAR take? There have been a lot of changes in recent years, coming quickly. That’s not a path the sport should plan on continuing on, so is 2021 a reasonable time frame for the new car? Maybe not if NASCAR truly wants to get it right and provide teams and fans some needed stability.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
One thing that lingers after the All-Star race is how far NASCAR is going to let drivers go in criticizing the racecar before they step in and quash it? On one hand, it’s refreshing to let drivers speak their minds… to a degree. But when a driver calls the cars “f—king pieces of s—t” after a race as Kyle Busch did, is that going too far?
It should be easy to say it’s fine for drivers to voice their opinions. But it’s not simple at all. Do those words influence fans’ opinions of the racing? It’s highly possible that they do, and that’s not something the sport can take lightly. If fans see it as sour grapes from a driver frustrated at not winning, that’s one thing. But if they see the sport as a whole as a negative because of one driver’s words, that’s another entirely.
Think that’s not going to happen? Think again. Those new to the sport or just learning about it might well think, “If the drivers think it’s that bad, why should I watch?” The sport needs new fans to come in as long-time viewers age. So NASCAR needs to gauge reaction to drivers and their words carefully.
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin must be quietly stewing over NASCAR’s reaction to Busch’s words. Hamlin was fined a few years ago for saying it was hard to pass with the package at the time, without the same creative use of four-letter words.
How… much does an All-Star win mean for a driver’s season?
When the All-Star event debuted in 1985, it was the stepping stone to the title for Darrell Waltrip, who won both that year. The All-Star winner went on to be the series champion three more times from 1987-1990 (Dale Earnhardt in ’97, Rusty Wallace in ’89 and Earnhardt again in ’90).
All told, Earnhardt won the All-Star race and the title in the same year three times (1997, 1990 and 1993). Jeff Gordon equaled that feat (1995, 1997 and 2001).
The race is a very good indicator of who’s having a strong season, or at least a strong first half, and that’s why the winner went on to the title eight times between 1985 and 2003.
Since NASCAR instituted playoffs in 2004, though, it’s only happened twice. Johnson won both the All-Star Race and the championship in 2006 and again in 2012. Carl Edwards came close in 2011, winning the All-Star Race, but losing the championship on a tiebreaker.
In the playoff era, a strong season, and especially a strong first half, isn’t particularly important in comparison with a strong playoffs. The All-Star winner in the last several years has possibly been a better indicator of who’s having a truly excellent season than the championship outcome. While it’s no longer a predictor of titles, it’s still a benchmark for drivers.