Every year, NASCAR finds a way to modify the All-Star Race, with changes to the format as well as the vehicle rules package, all in an effort to make the race more challenging for drivers and more exciting for fans.
This year, changes to the cars included a return to the 2014 splitter, a 6-inch high spoiler with a 12-inch ear on either side and something we tend to see used only at Daytona and Talladega superspeedways… a restrictor plate. This is a device that’s placed between the carburetor and intake manifold to reduce air flow as well as fuel to the combustion chamber, thus reducing horsepower. Although this tends to make races more interesting as it levels the playing field and keeps the cars in a pack instead of running single file, it ultimately makes passing more difficult and limits the driver just as it limits their speed. And if an accident takes place, more cars than usual are collected in the wreck simply because they’re running door to door and bumper and bumper.
The 2018 All-Star rules package was cause for a lot of questions and concerns as drivers and crew wondered how it would play out on a track like Charlotte where it had never been used before. And with their only practice time slot eliminated by rain, drivers ran the set-up for the very first time during the qualifying session late Friday afternoon.
Secured in the All-Star race were drivers that had previously won a 2017 and 2018 MENCS (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) race and those that had previously won an All-Star race or championship. This list encompassed Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr, Jimmy Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Kasey Kahne, and Jamie McMurray.
Added to the field were the 3 drivers that won Stage 1 (Alex Bowman), Stage 2 (Daniel Suarez) and Stage 3 (AJ Allmendinger) of The Open. Think of The Open as a heat race where participants race their way into the main event. In this case, the main event would come with a prize of a cool Million Dollars. Also added was the winner of the fan vote, which again was Chase Elliott for the 3rd year in a row. Altogether, it produced a field of 21 cars.
The race format was broken into four stages consisting of 30 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps, and a final 10 lap shootout in which the winner had to take the checkered flag while the race was under green. In other words, laps run under a potential yellow caution flag would not be counted and the race would continue to restart until all 10 green flag laps were met.
The first caution flew on Lap 2 for the single car spin of Kurt Busch in the #41 Monster Energy Ford. Busch got loose in Turn 2 and slid around, scraping the back end of the car against the wall. Without much in the way of damage, his pit crew installed 4 new tires and got him back onto the track, though he was already a lap down. The remainder of the stage played out smoothly and would see Kevin Harvick take the green and white checkered flag.
Stage 2 ran without incident and would recognize Kyle Busch as leading the field.
Only 5 laps into Stage 3, Kasey Kahne scraped the wall and left debris on the track, signaling the second caution flag of the night. On Lap 68, Alex Bowman spun on his own at the back of the field, requiring the stage to go into overtime in order to finish under green. Once again, Kevin Harvick would prove his dominance.
By the time the race hit the final 10-lap shootout, drivers were noticeably aggressive, impatient and somewhat desperate – a dangerous combination that often causes bad decisions, erratic moves and primal reactions, all of which led to the third and fourth caution flags. The third was for an inevitable wreck on Lap 74 when drivers tried to go 4 wide into the third turn.
With Stenhouse Jr on the bottom, straddling the apron and the track, it was impossible for him to hold the car down. As he began to slide up the track he connected with Martin Truex Jr. which spun the #78 car sideways. This collected the #2 of Brad Keselowski, knocking the radiator out of his Discount Tire Ford and totally tearing up the car. It also collected Clint Bowyer and both Kurt and Kyle Busch. Austin Dillon and pole sitter Matt Kenseth also sustained damage.
The fourth caution happened with only 2 laps to go when Kyle Larson drove into the corner carrying more speed than he could control and he automatically began sliding up the track. Though Joey Logano in the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford tried to give Larson room, eventually the two drivers ran out of track and Logano was shoved into the wall. As a knee-jerk reaction, Logano retaliated when he deliberately turned into Larson, spinning the #42 Chev down the track and through the grass.
The final laps saw a hard-fought battle between the #4 of Kevin Harvick and #19 of Daniel Suarez, but in the end, it was ‘The Closer’, Kevin Harvick, who would take home the Million Dollar prize. With 5 regular season wins under his belt and now the All-Star race as well, oddsmakers are leaning toward Harvick as their pick for the 2018 championship.