Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FORT WORTH, TX – The NASCAR All-Star Race weekend has traditionally been a celebration of the sport’s big-name drivers competing for a big-dollar check with no points on the line – pride and performance the motivators on the night.
This Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Texas Motor Speedway features not only the most accomplished drivers on the grid but also a new format designed to up an already high level of competitive intrigue.
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson won the $1 million check last year beating Brad Keselowski by .206-seconds and joins fellow two-time All-Star race winner Kevin Harvick as the only two active multi-time All-Star champions.
Larson, who went on to dominate the 2021 October Playoff race at Texas, also boasts the best All-Star average finish (5.4) among those drivers with more than two starts in the race. His Hendrick Motorsports team boasts an all-time best 10 All-Star wins.
The format has a new variation for 2022 including a unique multi-tier qualifying session and four-stage race with lengths of 25-laps for Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3, followed by a 50-lap shootout in the Stage 4 finale to decide the $1 million.
The Stage 1 winner will start first in the Stage 4 final run. The winner of Stage 2 will start second and the winner of Stage 3 will roll off third in the final stage. The best car in a newly-styled “pit stop competition” – held during the stage break between Stage 2 and Stage 3 – will start fourth in the final run to the big check.
Also new this year, if a caution does not “naturally” occur between laps 15-25 of the final stage then NASCAR will call an All Star ‘competition caution’ during that time.
Twenty drivers have already earned a position in the All-Star Race, including Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Harvick, defending winner Larson, Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, A.J. Allmendinger, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, Bubba Wallace, William Byron, Michael McDowell, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman.
The NASCAR All-Star Open – (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – just prior to the main event will send three additional drivers to the big show – the winners of each stage (20-laps, 20-laps and 10-laps). The traditional Fan Vote will provide the final All-Star competitor on the 24-car grid.
Fans have until Friday at noon ET – on NASCAR.com – to vote for a driver to advance into the All-Star race. The Fan Vote winner will be revealed just before cars grid for the main event.
Not only is the format new, but the facility is still relatively new to hosting NASCAR’s famed All-Star race, so expectations and “favorites” have logically changed with the locale.
At the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch leads all active drivers with four points-paying race wins, followed by Harvick and Hamlin who have three wins each. Of the seven active former Texas winners – Austin Dillon is the only one needing to race into an All-Star berth so that winning Lone Star resume is an asset for the Richard Childress Racing driver.
“I’m optimistic with how we’ve run at the mile-and-a-half tracks so far this year,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “As a manufacturer, the Toyotas were very good last week at Kansas, so I hope we can carry that to Texas. Obviously, it’s a different track, so not everything correlates, but our team is definitely looking forward to having some fun this weekend.”
For Hamlin’s JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., a million-dollar victory Sunday night would go a long way towards boosting his season. He’s still racing for his first victory of 2022 and although it’s not a points-paying event, an All-Star trophy is a reminder he’s very much in the thick of competition.
“The All-Star Race is always a good time,” Truex said. “There’s no real pressure and it’s a lot of fun for everyone. It’s a good opportunity for us to get laps at a track we’re going to see in the Playoffs, especially with the new car. I’m looking forward to it.
“I feel like we have shown good speed lately, so that gives me confidence that we’ll be in the mix on Sunday night.”
XFINITY SERIES RETURNS TO ACTION AT TEXAS
The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition after an off week with some interesting dynamics heading into Saturday afternoon’s SRS Distribution 250 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
There are no fulltime NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers with a series win at the 1.5-mile Texas high banks this weekend. Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is the defending race winner – collecting his 99th Xfinity Series victory last Spring. John Hunter Nemechek, who is competing for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title this season, won the 2021 Fall Xfinity Playoff race.
Current championship leader, A.J. Allmendinger started on pole position and finished in sixth place in BOTH races in 2022 – an interesting nod to his No. 16 on the Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. He is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all 11 races this season and holds a 25-point advantage over JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson coming to Fort Worth.
Gragson, who drives the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, has a pair of wins on the year and has finished fourth or better in the last three races – including a victory at Talladega. He was runner-up to Ty Gibbs at the first 1.5-mile race this year in Las Vegas. His best work at Texas is a runner-up in the 2020 Playoff race.
Gibbs, the 19-year-old driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, will be making his Texas Motor Speedway driving debut. He already has wins at both the 1.5-mile tracks the series has competed on this year and his 349 laps led is tops among all drivers. Gibbs last win came April 2 at Richmond, Va.
Veteran Justin Allgaier is the most recent Xfinity Series winner taking the trophy at Darlington, S.C. two weeks ago. He was runner-up at Dover, Del. the race before that giving him a momentum swing. He was runner-up to Busch at this Texas race last Spring and in 23 starts at Texas, Allgaier has 12 top-10 finishes and his 193 laps led is most among the championship contenders.
The last three Xfinity Series races have been won by JR Motorsports drivers – Gragson (Talladega, Ala.), Josh Berry (Dover, Del.) and Allgaier (Darlington, S.C.). A fourth consecutive win by the team this week with its fourth fulltime entry – Sam Mayer – would mark the first time in series history a team has won four consecutive races with four different drivers. A win by any JR Motorsports driver would make the team only the fourth in series history to win four consecutive races. Joe Gibbs Racing holds the record with six straight wins in the Spring of 2008.
Reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric may be poised to snap out of a rather lackluster title defense season at Texas. The 31-year-old Kaulig Racing driver is looking for his first win of the year and holds a slim 22-point edge on Anthony Alfredo in 12th place in the standings. He’s been strong at Texas, however, with four top-10 finishes in six series starts there including a career-best runner-up to Nemechek in this race last Fall.
Not to be overlooked, series rookie Sheldon Creed and driver Jeb Burton both have NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victories at Texas. And rookie Austin Hill – who already has a win this season – has three top-five Truck Series finishes at Texas, including a runner-up in 2020.
Special this weekend, NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron will be making his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start driving the No. 88 JRM Chevrolet for the team – his first series start since his 2017 Xfinity Series championship season.
TRUCK SERIES HEADS TO THE LONE STAR STATE
It’s a good bet that John Hunter Nemechek will be sporting a big smile when he returns to Texas Motor Speedway for Friday’s SpeedyCash.com 220 (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Nemechek is the defending winner of the track’s Camping World Truck Series race and won a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the Fort Worth 1.5-miler as well last season. He trails championship leader and reigning series champ Ben Rhodes by 20 points in a tightly contested run for the 2022 Camping World Truck Series regular season title.
The top three drivers – Rhodes, Nemechek and three-race winner Zane Smith are separated by only 21 points. Chandler Smith is in fourth place in the driver standings, only 29 points back form the lead.
Zane Smith arrives in the Lone Star state after a dominating victory last weekend in Kansas – leading 108 of the 134 laps. He is the only multi-time winner in the series in 2022 and brings a promising Texas resume to the track this weekend too scoring top-10 finishes in all three previous starts there.
In fact, Rhodes, Nemechek and Zane Smith all boast top-3 finishes at Texas – Rhodes was runner-up in 2018, Nemechek is the defending race winner and Zane Smith was third in 2020.
With Zane Smith’s three-win tally this season and the fact only four fulltime drivers have won a race – Rhodes, Nemechek and Chandler Smith – there remains six Playoff positions for championship eligible drivers and eight races to formally set that Playoff field.
And this weekend presents a challenging lineup with a handful of savvy part-time veterans set to take the green flag vying against the title eligible.
Former series champion Todd Bodine – Texas’s all-time winningest Truck Series driver (six victories) – will be racing the No. 62 Halmar Friesen Chevrolet along with this season’s two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner, Ross Chastain (No. 41 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet) and Ryan Preece, who is 3-for-3 in top 10s driving a partial Truck Series schedule in 2022. This will be his Texas Truck Series debut in the always-competitive No. 17 DGR Ford.