Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – With $1 million on the line, no championship points to worry about, only 85 laps to negotiate, and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ all-stars on the starting grid, Saturday’s Monster Energy All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has all the elements of being one of the most intense and exciting events of the season.
Motivations to win certainly vary. The race’s all-time winningest driver Jimmie Johnson hasn’t hoisted a trophy since Daytona’s season-opening exhibition, The Clash. The race’s defending winner Kevin Harvick had won five races before All-Star weekend last year but is still looking for his first victory of 2019.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman has finished runner-up in the last three consecutive regular season races leading into the Monster Energy Open and would love nothing more than to celebrate for the first time in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane. And a win Saturday would make him the fourth driver to win the All-Star race before earning a regular season trophy. His teammate, fan favorite Chase Elliott has been close in three previous All-Star starts but is looking for his first victory in the race as well.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the All-Star race because he was winless in 2018 for the first time in three years so he’s eager to press the gas and advance from the Monster Energy Open as is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez, who like Larson, has a runner-up finish in the All-Star race but no trophy. He won the Monster Energy Open in 2017 and last year finished advanced to All-Star race after winning a stage in the Open; he ultimately finished second to Harvick by a scant 0.325-second in the main event.
Then there’s Kyle Busch, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race winner, who leads all active drivers in laps led (256) in the race, but has only that one victory. He’s coming off his first sub-10th-place finish – 30th in Kansas last week – and extremely eager to regain form. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. is one of eight drivers in Saturday night’s field that’s never won the All-Star race. He’s only had a pair of top-10 finishes in eight All-Star starts, yet turned in the most dominant Coca-Cola 600 showing in history three years ago leading 392 of the race’s 400 laps.
Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski picked up his third victory of the season last weekend at Kansas Speedway – tying him with Kyle Busch for most wins on the year. But the 2012 Monster Energy Series champion is a surprising 0-for-10 in the All-Star race with six top-10 finishes. Twice he’s finished runner-up (2012, 2016).
The only newcomer already qualified for the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race is JGR’s Erik Jones, who earned a position by virtue of his win in the 2018 Daytona summer race.
“I missed it the last two years so it’s nice to actually be in it this year and have a shot to race for it,” Jones said. “I’m excited for that. “I’ve been sitting on my couch back home watching it. It’s great.
“I love this month coming up just being at home for a couple weeks and not having to get a on a plane and travel. You get a lot of friends and family that come and stay in town and that’s always fun.
“A million bucks? Who doesn’t want to win that? It’s a great race. You look at the history of it and some of the shows that have been put on at a that race and it’s something that I think we all look forward to as a driver to have an opportunity to go and compete in.”
Potentially four additional drivers will join that field of 15, advancing out of Monster Energy Open – held at 6 p.m. just prior to the All-Star event. This 50-lap race will be an opportunity for up to four drivers to qualify for the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race. The three stage winners plus a Fan Vote winner will all move into the All-Star grid.
Ryan Newman is the only driver to ever transfer from the Monster Energy Open and go on to win the All-Star race (2002). Kasey Kahne is the only driver to win the Fan Vote and go on to win the All-Star race (2008).
NASCAR GANDER OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES
The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star weekend kicks off Friday night with the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race under the lights.
And while it’s essentially a “home” race for most of NASCAR’s three major series, it’s actually an away show for the series’ championship leading team, ThorSport Racing, which is based in Ohio. And that’s fine with this group of drivers, who figure that makes a victory this weekend all the more dramatic.
ThorSport Racing has certainly been setting the tone of the season with Grant Enfinger leading the championship standings by 13 points over defending series champion Brett Moffitt. Enfinger’s teammate Johnny Sauter is the defending race winner. Another teammate Matt Crafton is one of only three multi-time Charlotte race winners – 2008 and 2016.
This weekend may well open up the title chase again. Enfinger’s lead over Moffitt is tenuous. Former championship leader Stewart Friesen is only 15 points back and Enfinger’s three teammates – Ben Rhodes (-33 points), Sauter (-35) and Crafton (-42) round out the top six.
And Enfinger, who made it to the Championship Four in 2018, acknowledged with a smile that while everyone else may be “excited” to race at Charlotte, he still feels a bit “snake bit” at the track – a change in luck this weekend will be welcome. He’s still looking for his first victory of the season despite leading the point standings four different times.
“I know everybody else is excited about the race but I’m more excited about just getting through Charlotte and hoping we can just get through this race,” Enfinger said smiling.
“It seems like the last couple races myself and [crew chief] Jeff Hensley, I just struggled, just missed it a little bit so I say that jokingly, I feel like we’ve got a really good package, we’re bringing our best mile and a half truck here, number 44. I am really excited about it, but at the same time, in back of my mind, we’ve just run so badly there the last couple of years, so hopefully we can get all that fixed. I’ve got confidence in the guys working on it so hopefully we’re going to be good.”
Certainly one driver Enfinger and the rest of the field will need to deal with on Friday night is Kyle Busch, who will be making his fifth and final Gander Trucks start of the season.
Busch has won all four previous truck races he entered this year and is a record seven-time winner of the Charlotte truck race. In 12 starts, he has finished first or second 10 times. His only finish outside the top-10 is. … 11th place (2007).