Both nostalgia and the noise came for NASCAR all weekend at a sold out North Wilkesboro Speedway. A Chase Rice concert, throwback schemes and a miracle renovation awaited those lucky enough to attend the first Cup Series race held there in 27 years.
It's just that when the green flag fell on the All-Star Race, all that magic tilted Kyle Larson's way.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver turned this revival into a runaway, leading 145 of 200 laps en route to a 4.5-second victory over Bubba Wallace. At one point, Larson's lead swelled to half-a-lap, almost unthinkable in modern day NASCAR. His car just was flat out faster than everyone else.
"I could roll in with a lot of speed," Larson explained. "I could kind of check up my center of [turn] 3 and 4 and drive off really low off of 4. That was a line that I had kind of found in the truck race [which Larson won the day before], and I didn't think that it would work in the Cup car as well as it did, and it seemed even better in the Cup car for me."
Larson passed the entire field on fresh tires after the only caution for an incident on lap 15. It took just 30 laps for him to get in front, becoming the poster boy for tire management on a 40-year-old racing surface that ate up Goodyears and made passing more difficult as the night wore on.
But a second half of the All-Star Race filled with mostly single-file racing still felt different.
The raucous fan base and atmosphere was unlike any the sport has seen for an exhibition that's been fading from view ever since its One Hot Night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1992.
"The vibe was just amazing," Larson said.
While he certainly had one million ($) reasons to feel that way, other drivers agreed with a rare chorus of "don't change anything!" despite a rout that would have left people up in arms almost every other weekend.
"It was a pretty fun night trying to conserve tires," sixth-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. "It reminded me of my late model days."
Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO Marcus Smith said they'll leave that old North Wilkesboro surface until the track "absolutely has" to be repaved. There's even talks the facility will be added as a points-paying event on the NASCAR schedule come 2024.
Seems like the surprise of the track's restoration, sparked by $18 million in funding through the country's American Rescue Plan in 2021, was enough to keep everyone on cloud nine -- at least for now.
North Wilkesboro weekend is in the books. This time, it won't take over a quarter century to update the scoreboard— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) May 22, 2023
Here's to a bright future for @NWBSpeedway and for Wilkes County pic.twitter.com/xoo6VUdCyl
"I'm a big believer in less is more," Elliott said earlier in the weekend. "This is special."
Green: Bubba Wallace -- A disappointed Wallace won "best of the rest" for finishing second, leaving him "going home with nothing" instead of the million-dollar prize. What it does do is cement the momentum we've seen from the No. 23 team in recent weeks: five top-12 finishes in the past six points-paying races. He's on the right side of NASCAR's playoff bubble.
Yellow: Daniel Suarez -- The only other person to lead the All-Star Race, Suarez never could capitalize on his pole position, sliding to seventh, nearly a full lap behind leader Larson by the checkered flag. A victory would have equaled momentum for a Trackhouse Racing program saddled with teammate Ross Chastain's controversies and Suarez sitting a disappointing 18th in the Cup standings.
Red: Kevin Harvick -- So much excitement surrounded Harvick's switch to No. 29 for this race, replicating the paint scheme of his first Cup win in March 2001. Problem is, the veteran running his final All-Star Race was so slow for the duration of the event fans never really got a chance to see the car on TV. He finished 18th, two laps off the pace in a run that stalled out momentum from a runner-up result at Darlington.
Kevin Harvick's 29 is being loaded up after a disappointing last run.— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) May 22, 2023
Next time you see one of Harvick's 29 cars, it'll probably be in the @NASCARHall pic.twitter.com/G7az3nyWQN
Speeding Ticket: Size of the All-Star Field -- No change in format or grid would have stopped Larson on a night he was simply better. My gripe is with how many drivers made it into the main event: 24 of 37 entered. NASCAR thinks 65 percent of the field is special enough to be considered "All-Star worthy?"
Even with so many winners over the past 16 months, that number's high. There needs to be a better way to trim the field and make this race truly "the best of the best" -- while pleasing the fan base.
The night's biggest controversy occurred in the All-Star Open, a last chance qualifier where the top two finishers automatically advance into the main event. Michael McDowell got by rookie Ty Gibbs on a restart, only for Gibbs to punt him, pushed right into Justin Haley in a wreck that ruined McDowell's chances to advance.
Justin Haley and Michael McDowell slam the wall after some 3-wide racing with Ty Gibbs. Justin Haley is done for the day. https://t.co/JrZUxOHbXs pic.twitter.com/HxueWhAxBN— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 21, 2023
The 2021 Daytona 500 winner made it his mission after that to keep Gibbs from advancing, knocking the No. 54 out of the lead as a lapped car. But the move ultimately failed, with Gibbs sliding into second and finishing there while McDowell limped home to watch from the sidelines, claiming he "should have ran [Gibbs] into the barrels and called it good."
Michael McDowell isn't happy with Ty Gibbs after the All-Star Open. pic.twitter.com/Eri9oYjouF— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 21, 2023
"It's short track racing to get into the All-Star Race," McDowell explained after cooling down. "Somebody's going to leave with hurt feelings. I guess it's me."