Did the NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Prove Times Have Truly Changed in the Cup Series?
The NASCAR Cup Series went back to one of the oldest tracks in the sport’s history this past weekend, but the oldest drivers in the field for the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway were notably absent from the front of the field Sunday throughout the 200-lap exhibition event.
30-year-old Kyle Larson dominated the event with 145 laps led and an impressive drive through the entire 24-car field after his first pit stop during a Lap 17 caution. Daniel Suarez, 31, finished seventh and was the only other driver over the age of 30 to finish inside the top 10. He also led the other 55 laps and was the only other driver to pace the field at any point.
Former series champs and veteran stars fell to the back at North Wilkesboro
Reigning series champion Joey Logano, 32, finished 12th, while fellow former series champs Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch all finished in the back half of the field. Denny Hamlin also finished 13th and is tied for 15th on the all-time wins list with 49 career Cup Series victories despite not having a championship, while Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are both former Daytona 500 winners and each has raced more than 10 full-time seasons in the Cup Series.
The clear separation between the group of younger drivers and older ones was surprising, given the worn-out race surface at North Wilkesboro. Sure, no driver in the All-Star Race field was active the last time NASCAR raced at the 0.625-mile oval in 1996, but the 42-year-old track surface figured to favor drivers with more experience and car control.
Larson instead took hold of the race early, but he is perhaps the best driver in the series at the moment in terms of overall car control, especially on a worn-out surface that is somewhat similar to a dirt track with the lack of traction it provides.
Bubba Wallace produced an unexpected runner-up finish for a driver who has only three career top-10 finishes in 29 points-paying starts at short tracks in his six full-time seasons in the series.
The rest of the top six all could be legitimately expected to run up near the front. Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney are all established Cup Series drivers who have won races and made the playoffs.
The fact that no driver other than Larson who started a Cup Series race before 2014 finished 11th or better is somewhat remarkable. For comparison, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch had 23 and 28 career Cup Series wins, respectively, before Harvick’s championship season of 2014 even began. Larson leads that group of six younger drivers with 21 career wins in NASCAR’s top series.
Veteran drivers have thrived at other new tracks in recent years
The last time NASCAR visited a new venue featured the complete opposite. Logano won the inaugural Cup Series race in 2022 at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis after an overtime battle with Busch, whose older brother and 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch finished third. 39-year-old driver Aric Almirola finished fifth, and Truex crossed the finish line in sixth after leading 42 laps earlier in the event.
Nashville Superspeedway was the new track on the 2021 schedule, and Larson also won that event in another dominating performance. He led 264 of 300 laps, but Almirola, Harvick, and Stenhouse finished fourth through sixth.
The 2023 season has featured a mix of generations in Victory Lane through the first 13 points-paying races. After Stenhouse’s Dayton 500 triumph, Busch has two victories, and Logano, Truex, and Hamlin have each won a race. Meanwhile, 25-year-old William Byron has won a series-high three races. Reddick and Christopher Bell have each won a race for the under-30 group, and 30-year-old Ross Chastain currently leads the points standings.
The All-Star Race was likely an aberration for the most veteran drivers in the Cup Series. They will still hold certain advantages at different tracks and types of races. It is likely not a pure coincidence that Stenhouse, Logano, and Kyle Busch have won the three superspeedway-style races this season. They are three of the drivers with the most experience in the pack racing that those events produce, and they were able to make the correct decisions during the final laps to position themselves up front.
However, the All-Star Race might have also shown there is a younger generation of drivers in the series who are now established Cup Series drivers, and they figure to be top contenders both for the rest of this season and many yet to come.