North Wilkesboro’s All-Star repeat

Goodyear’s new option tires—recognizable because of their red lettering—is displayed, on a stack of yellow-lettered standard tires, at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (Shawn Krest/North State Journal)

So, it looks like this is going to be a thing.

Last year, the top story of NASCAR’s All-Star Race was the circuit’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time since 1996.

This year, with the All-Star Race returning to North Wilkesboro for the second straight year, nostalgia is on the back burner. There are plenty of other new storylines to track in Sunday’s million-dollar race.

The basics

This is the 40th running of NASCAR’s All-Star Race and the 36th time it’s been held in North Carolina. The inaugural race, and 34 of the first 35 runnings, took place at Charlotte Motor Speedway. North Wilkesboro will become just the third track to host more than one All-Star Race.

The winner gets a million-dollar purse, and 18 drivers have already qualified for the race: A.J. Allmendinger; Ross Chastain; Kyle Larson; Brad Keselowski; Kyle Busch; Chase Elliott; Denny Hamlin; Ryan Blaney; Chris Buescher; Martin Truex Jr.; Christopher Bell; Joey Logano; Michael McDowell; William Byron; Tyler Reddick; Daniel Suarez; Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; Shane Van Gisbergen.

Three more racers will be added to the field—the top two finishers from Sunday’s All-Star Open, which runs two and a half hours before the start of the All-Star Race, and the winner of the Fan Vote.

Going beneath the surface

The one sour note on the track’s return to major racing last year was that several drivers complained about the rough racing surface. That problem has been solved, as the track has been repaved for the first time since 1981.

According to Fox racing analyst, and former All-Star Race winner Michael Waltrip, that means two things: speed and contact.

“Just the speed of these cars I think that’s going to be the big story,” he said. “Also, just the grip level, and the way you’re gonna have to probably push and shove a little bit to make those moves. Last year, you saw a lot of slipping and sliding. There’s gonna be less of that. So, it’s probably gonna take more aggression this year than you saw here a year ago.”

Tire testing

The race will get an interesting twist courtesy of Goodyear.

In March, William Byron, Joey Logano and Ty Gibbs tried out the new surface at North Wilkesboro in a tire test. Based on the results of those test runs, Goodyear developed a tire that should be optimal for the course. Drivers will also have access to wet weather tires, in case rains come over the weekend.

Then there’s the option tire. As NASCAR spokesperson Scott Cooper explains, “It’s a softer tire. This tire is actually the same compound as the wet weather tire, but it is designed to have more grip and be faster. But it’s also going to fall off a lot quicker.”

Ironically, drivers won’t have an option on how they start the race. They’ll all be using the option tire at the starting line. “But they’re going to have another set (of option tires),” Cooper explained. “And then it’ll be up to the teams and the drivers to decide when they want to try to use the other set, if at all, throughout the All-Star Race.”

“I think that’s really cool,” Waltrip said. “I like how they formatted it. You know, you start on one set, but you only have two of those. When do you put them on? There’s a break with 50 laps ago, they probably won’t be fast for 50 laps. They might only be fast for 15 or 20. So, understanding when is the best lap to get those tires and think about this? What if you don’t get them with 50 to go and there’s not another caution and somebody did get them there. They might wear their tires out or they might get a check for a million dollars. A lot of questions right now. And I’m sure there’s engineers and crew chiefs back home on their computers trying to science out exactly what the best way to attack this format is.”

Busy Kyle

Last year’s All-Star Race winner, Kyle Larson, will be arriving in North Wilkesboro on Saturday, as he prepares for the rare Indy 500/Charlotte Coca Cola 600 double on Memorial Day Weekend. He’ll be running Indy qualification heats all week, then head south for at most one All-Star heat before the big race.

Of course, after last year’s dominant All-Star performance, he might not need much prep time.

“I was here last year as a fan,” Waltrip said. “I had my camper parked over in the back straightaway. Me and my buddy sat over there and had a couple beers and watched Kyle Larson just methodically drive that car right on the edge. I just watched him so close to that inside wall coming off turn four and then clipping the wall. Just awesome racing, great, great, great memories of watching Kyle get that victory.”