By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — You occasionally get that in big time auto racing … but this was the key takeaway … that big time auto racing is once again alive and well at Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway.
No matter how the All-Star Race itself turned out, and Kyle Larson dominating the main event was certainly anticlimactic for reasons to be discussed, the entire week was one for celebration above all else.
The event was such an overwhelming success when looked at holistically and including the CARS Tour, ASA and Truck Series races throughout the week. At least 10,000 were in attendance for Cup Series practice and the Pit Crew Challenge on Friday afternoon.
It has been a long time since there was this kind of unanimous support within the industry for literally anything but everyone wanted to race again in some capacity at Wilkes County, North Carolina. The general vibes were best articulated by track owner Marcus Smith after the race.
“I’ve never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood and everything was just going so well,” Smith said.
For decades, racing enthusiasts insisted they wanted NASCAR’s oldest track back, and a herculean effort from a cast of characters that included Smith, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and North Carolina governor Roy Cooper banded together to make it happen.
North of $20 million was pumped into the long dormant facility over the winter following a successful grassroots event in August — $18 million of it coming from a state spend of the federal American Rescue Plan.
In other words, this isn’t a one-and-done as high-level motorsports will continue within the foothills in some capacity for the foreseeable future.
“We just started working on next year’s schedule with NASCAR, so we’ll see,” Smith said. “I think that, not speaking to next year specifically, I do think that there is definitely a place in the NASCAR world for North Wilkesboro Speedway — whether it’s a special event like All-Star or maybe a points-paying event, I don’t know.
“I think it’s a very important place for short track racing, the Late Model races, the Modifieds, you name it. It’s a special place. It’s like walking into a museum that’s active and living and very special for the competitors and the fans alike.”
So, what exactly happened on-track Sunday night?
For one, to a certain degree, you just have to tip your cap to Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 team. This is just what they do.
Running practically last at the onset of the first caution on Lap 18, Daniels called Larson down pit road to take their tires early, albeit with the added benefit that it would also give a scuffed set that only had 18 laps on them.
“We were really far back,” Daniels said. “At that point you almost have to play something different. If it were a points race, you might have to be more conservative to the field or to the guys you’re trying to compete with in points but with the nature of the race, that was fortunately the perfect time to make that call.
“We weren’t going to be sitting on 30-lap scuffs, it was 15-lap scuffs. So, okay, if we had to restart up front on 15-lap scuffs, fall back to fifth or sixth then maybe he could hang out there and we’re better than 18th.”
That Larson drove through the field on new tires was one thing. That he drove from the rear to the lead in 30 laps was another. That he ultimately drove away to a 12 second lead by the halfway break was the most telling notation.
Meanwhile, atop the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 pit box, crew chief Chris Gabehart was kicking himself for not calling Denny Hamlin down and giving themselves the same advantage. He says it put Larson on offense instead of defense.
“I need to go back and watch the first 18 laps because I don’t remember them being that great on straight-up tires,” Gabehart said. “What happened was he was the best car who pitted and Kyle Larson, again, in my opinion is the best driver in the world.
“At a track where you literally do not go wide open, the best drivers have a lot of room to work, and then he gets control of the race. It was just a cascading thing but we conceded the race and we let them have us, and it made for a long night.”
Rudy Fugle and Randall Burnett called William Byron and Kyle Busch, respectively, down pit road on Lap 61. The expectation, at least from Fugle, is that Byron would un-lap himself and be on equal footing with the 5 for the second half.
They never even got that lap back, Fugle telling Byron in real time, that they never anticipated this kind of pace out of Larson. He stood by that summation after the race.
“When the 5 didn’t fall off, it ruined us,” Fugle said. “Then we just didn’t have the pace we needed to hold on. We were two car lengths away from the lucky dog and we projected the 5 to fall off more than he did and that hurt us.”
Getting back on the lead lap wouldn’t have saved Byron’s race because they were behind the Martin Truex Jr. on the same strategy, and they just weren’t that good, but all of this is to underscore the fact that Larson, Daniels and the No. 5 just kicked their asses.
Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick finished second and third on the same strategy as Larson, meaning that strategy was the correct call, no matter what, but the 5 was still in a different speed stratosphere than everyone else.
Again, Gabehart would argue that potentially faster cars could have pitted on Lap 18 and changed the entire narrative, but the die had been cast.
“Sometimes you just get beat,” is what Wallace crew chief Bootie Barker said after the race.
The only thing that could have given everyone else a chance, according to Daniels, would be a caution inside the final 30 laps of the first half.
“Let’s be honest, if the caution came out with 30 to go in that stage we were going to be hosed,” Daniels said. “The field is going to come in and put on stickers. We are going to have 15-lap scuffs, really big risk.”
But even then, as good as Larson was and how little falloff there was after 30 laps, the 5 still looked like the class of the field with clean air.
The larger issue, the proverbial red elephant in the room, is that the Next Gen continues to underwhelm on short tracks. It’s too aerodynamically sensitive in traffic, makes too much mechanical grip with its wider, lower-profile tires and stops entirely too well with its robust road course brake package.
It doesn’t have enough horsepower at this weight, either.
“Truthfully, this car at every short track has kind of struggled,” said Chase Briscoe. “I think a lack of grip didn’t really fix the issues. I don’t know. It was fun. I still think this has a great opportunity to be an incredible event, but it would be different if every other race on short tracks had been really good. I think we just need to keep continuing to work on the car. I feel like we made it better on short tracks than what it was last year, but we just need to get it better.”
That North Wilkesboro Speedway received epoxy patches on the bottom of Turns 3 and 4, concrete aprons and a newly paved pit road that can be driven over on corner exit, the bottom groove has an even greater advantage than it would have even last summer.
“We’re slipping and sliding around and doing the things we need to do, but, truthfully, I just feel like this race would have been really, really good if the track had more than one lane,” Briscoe said. “It was almost the track more than the car, necessarily. It was just so fast on the bottom groove. If you miss it by six inches, you are a half-second slower.
“We all know that, and we all just continue to fight for the bottom. I would almost just put it up as the racetrack is so bottom-dominant that that’s why it’s really hard to pass.”
Larson doesn’t want to see North Wilkesboro receive a complete repave and offered a suggestion to better equalize the top and bottom grooves.
“Just little patches here and there to add character to the track and find grip,” Larson said. “I think that’s why we were so glued to the bottom was that there was patches around the bottom of the track.
“I think if they can introduce some patches in the middle to upper grooves, I think that’ll make the racing even better. I don’t know, I would hate to see them repave the whole surface, but I think they could go another year of trying to add character and fill in some areas that need help with patches.”
But again, a second groove wouldn’t be so necessary if a trailing car wouldn’t receive a tremendous aero push behind a leading car on short tracks the way they do right now. Chase Elliott said Sunday’s race would have produced more action if drivers could simply get to the rear bumper with greater ease than the status quo.
“It’s because, most of the time, you can’t get close enough to even hit them,” Elliott said.
William Byron, after finishing second to Bubba Pollard on Wednesday in the ASA National Super Late Model race, said he really enjoyed racing those cars for how different they are on short tracks in comparison to his Sunday cars.
“It’s fun when you get behind another car and don’t plow like you do in the Cup car,” Byron said afterwards.
It’s also no secret that virtually every crew chief was disappointed in the tire compound Goodyear brough for this weekend.
“With a surface like this, you have to have the right tires,” Stewart Haas Racing No. 4 play caller Rodney Childers said. “We knew this wasn’t going to be the right tire. We needed something that would be more gummy, that cakes up and wears out like the rain tire did last night.
“I’m sure they’re going to work at it, make it better, and for their first time out, they didn’t want to blow out, get someone hurt or look bad. They accomplished that part of it, but we just have to do better on their setup.”
Burnett agreed about the rain tire on Saturday from a composition standpoint but said it was ultimately his job to race whatever Goodyear gives them and that he’s not a tire engineer.
Gabehart said there simply wasn’t enough falloff to really produce the kind of show everyone wanted.
Again, and it can’t be said enough, the No. 5 team largely just executed better than everyone else both in strategic decision atop the pit box but also race craft from behind the wheel. Elliott offered full credit to his teammates.
“But Kyle, Cliff and the No. 5 team did a great job and really set the pace there once they took tires at the start and controlled the event from there,” Elliott said. “These races are hard to win. They’re not always going to be barnburners, side-by-side, banging-door finishes. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re still hard to win and that should always be celebrated.”
What should also be celebrated is what returning to this facility means for NASCAR on the whole.
While most everyone was disappointed in the race on Sunday, there was equal enthusiasm for the event, the spectacle and overall vibe. In 2010, an All-Star Race held in front of 25,000 people at Charlotte Motor Speedway would have felt like a ghost town.
Placing that same number within a one square mile radius felt like a happening — one that Larson was keenly aware of in the closing laps.
“I think for whatever reason the crowd just feels more on top of you here than other tracks,” Larson said. “I don’t know if the code of building a track and the safety stuff was less regulated back then, but man, it feels like the front row is like right on the catchfence. …
“It was just cool. You could feel the atmosphere from Friday of truck practice. The crowd was massive for that. I think typically you see like 45 fans in the stands at any other track on a Friday.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon said the weekend was a big victory for the industry.
“The energy was amazing,” Gordon said. “This track is old and worn out. The cars were sliding all over the place. I certainly want to see us come back here because the fans embraced it. The racing, we have some work to do on the short track racing in general with this car, but otherwise this was one of the most spectacular weekends I have seen in NASCAR in a very long time.”
And that was the general consensus across the board.
Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano said this was a throwback in every sense of the word.
“You had to be a smart driver tonight, and I enjoyed that part of it,” Logano said. “There are so many races these days that the tire doesn’t wear out anymore and you can be a hammerhead and never pay the price. The smart racers don’t win as much. I like that this brought you back to your roots a lot.”
Gabehart said everyone has to separate the race from the event to a degree.
“Professionally, you have to compartmentalize the situation,” Gabehart said. “The weekend was phenomenal. Independent of our car, and the mistakes we made, the weekend was clearly a smash hit.
“The race was a little bit of a snoozer but that happens when there’s just 20 cars on the track and no one is going to make mistakes and the cautions that come with it. Again, that lap 18 caution was a turning point. It sounds ridiculous to say, but it was and I’m just mad that I let my headset make me too stupid to actually do what I knew I was supposed to do.”
Fugle hopes this leads to a Cup Series tour of old short tracks or other classic facilities.
“We both know what it’s like to go to these short tracks and what kind of show they can put on,” Fugle said. “We can revive a lot of little places, or maybe just some of them, imagine what we could do at Fairgrounds Speedway or Rockingham, so many other places.
“The event was amazing.”
And arguably most importantly is that Smith learned his company could effectively build a Cup Series compliant track out of the remains of one abandoned 25 years ago in just five months.
“They were able to start this project in January, and it’s May right now,” Smith said. “This place was covered in kudzu vines and poison oak and trees growing out of the grandstand less than 12 months ago.
“They completely built a brand-new facility over in Turn 4. Governor Cooper, when I saw him on Wednesday, he said, ‘I gave it a 50/50 shot that you would actually get this done,’ and the he said, ‘I was just being generous at the time.’ It’s truly amazing.
“My feelings have just been incredible gratitude. I’m just so inspired by them. It’s really great.”
That gratitude, in a rare showing of unity across the entire sport, is legitimately shared by literally everyone. North Wilkesboro is back and the industry will figure out the rest of what has to be done.