CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — The All-Star race showed Kyle Larson is the likely favorite for the Coca-Cola 600.
It also showed that the best car doesn’t always win, and the winner will likely be aided by a heavy dose of clean air.
Translation? NASCAR’s longest race could be an epic snoozer. That’s saying a lot after Martin Truex Jr. last year led all but eight of the 400 laps.
Saturday night’s annual All-Star race gave little hope of the 600 rising to some epic event that will be talked about for years. At Charlotte Motor Speedway, the leader uses the clean air in front of him to drive away from the field. Passing is difficult at the front.
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“You can’t pass anywhere,” said Ryan Blaney. “It’s not great track conditions, to be honest with you.”
Blaney raced his way into the All-Star race by winning a segment in an earlier qualifying event. He then tried to open the race with an optional set of soft tires to gain track position. That didn’t really work. Then he tried a two-tire pit stop that briefly cycled him into the lead. But that didn’t work, either.
For 40 laps over two segments, no one had anything at all for Larson. He led flag to flag in each of the two segments, and in theory should have won the race. He was the leader heading into the final pit stops, but a slow stop sent him back to the track in fourth.
The $1 million prize was going to one of 10 drivers who won a 10-lap sprint to the finish. So whichever driver took the lead on the restart would churn through that clean air all the way to victory lane.
Larson didn’t get a shot because of the slow stop.
“I think we had the car to be the winner,” he said. “You’ve got to be perfect to win a Cup race. I knew being the leader off pit road was going to be the big thing. When I could tell that the rear (tire) changer wasn’t around nearly as fast as the front, I knew we were in trouble.”
The win instead went to Kyle Busch, his first in a Cup car at Charlotte. It was his first in the All-Star race, and ended more than a decade of frustration at the local track. Busch had eight wins in the Xfinity Series, seven in the Truck Series, including Friday night’s race.
To finally get an All-Star win, he had to be bold on the final restart and dive his car deep to the bottom of the track for a three-wide pass of Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Busch made the pass stick then took off sailing. No one could catch him once he was in the clean air.
“I could have just sat there in the line, I could have pushed Brad, faded in the corner, watched the outside lane go by,” Busch said. “You’ve kind of got to do what you’ve got to do. Maybe it’s not one of the top five moments, but top 10 maybe, 15 probably.
“Once I got that opportunity to get there, I knew it was going to be now or never. Take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself.”
That’s the nature of this aerodynamic sensitive racing, and opportunities to make something happen are few. Johnson couldn’t catch Busch once Busch had taken the lead, and Johnson soon had his hands full trying to hold off Larson for second place.
Larson grabbed the runner-up spot in a pass that Johnson didn’t find necessary considering the winning car is all that matters in the All-Star race.
As NASCAR tries to address its issues and improve the racing product, there’s been debate about moving the All-Star race from Charlotte. Why? Simply because of the nature of racing on an intermediate track.
“There’s no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show,” Johnson said. “I think Charlotte Motor Speedway works as hard as they possibly can put on a great show. They’re open minded to any and every idea.”
But the seven-time NASCAR champion noted the teams are handcuffed by NASCAR’s rule book.
“We all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed,” Johnson said. “You can’t pass running the same speed. The damn rule book is too thick. There’s too much going on.”
“I don’t have the answer. Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing. When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do, we can’t pass as easily as anybody, we have to logically look at it and say, ‘Hey, we’re all going the same speed, no wonder we can’t pass.’ “