NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson didn't mince words after his third All-Star race victory in the last five years.
“That was an old school (butt)-whipping, for sure,” Larson said.
Larson turned in a dominating effort to run away with his third All-Star race and earn $1 million Sunday night in the Cup Series’ return to North Wilkesboro Speedway following a 27-year absence.
He became only the fourth driver to win the All-Star race at least three times. Jimmie Johnson has the most with four victories, while Larson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt have three. Larson is the first to win the All-Star race at three different tracks, also having won in Charlotte in 2019 and Texas in 2021.
He celebrated the win with a full lap of burnouts around the .625-mile track as Hendrick Motorsports won its 11th All-Star race.
Bubba Wallace finished second in the 200-lap non-points exhibition race, followed by Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Chase Elliott.
But only Larson collected prize money in the winner-take-all event.
Wallace joked he won the “best of the rest.”
“Larson was lights out, so congrats to him,” Wallace said. “They have been hitting it on the head all season, so to run second to them is not a bad thing. But to run second in the All-Star race sucks because you go home with nothing.”
Larson was unsure if he would finish better than 15th after struggling in the heat races Saturday night.
“I didn’t think there was enough there for (my crew) to get me better," Larson said.
So when Larson was penalized for speeding on lap 24 and sent to the back of the field, he figured it was not his night.
But after taking on the new tires, he drove his No. 5 Chevrolet to the front of the field blowing past 16 cars, including polesitter Daniel Suarez on lap 56. Larson went on to build an 11-second lead before the first competition caution at lap 100.
“Once I was picking people off, I was like, man, is my car that good or is it the tire disparity?" Larson said. “Then I was like shoot, our car is pretty good. So I tried to lap as many as I could.”
The competition caution didn't slow Larson, who was never seriously challenged in the second half of the race.
“We had a great car in the long runs and I was thinking that for sure there was going to be a caution,” said Larson, who also won the Trucks Series race at North Wilkesboro on Saturday. “I got out to a big lead and I could see everybody's cars were driving like crap in front of me.”
If fans came to see wrecks, they walked away disappointed.
There were none.
And the only pass they saw for the lead was Larson moving past Suarez in what amounted to yet another short track snoozer in a season where NASCAR has struggled with non-competitive races.
“It's no secret that everybody in the industry, the fans have been vocal about wanting better short track racing, so I think what happened tonight goes along with what that narrative has been lately,” Reddick said. “NASCAR is working on it and we are all going to put our heads together and try to make short track racing better.”
North Wilkesboro Speedway's patched-up asphalt track held up fairly well following a week of racing despite not having been paved in more than three decades.
The track, which sat mostly dormant and became overgrown with weeds, was restored with help of Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith and Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. for NASCAR’s 75th year anniversary season.
Suarez and Chris Buescher started on the front row for the All-Star race after winning their 60-lap heats Saturday night, when NASCAR experimented for the first time with wet weather tires on Cup Series cars.
Suarez dominated early, leading the first 55 laps of the race, while Buescher quickly fell off the pace early, dropping to 10th place after just five laps when he stuck on the outside.
Kevin Harvick, who is set to retire after the season, drove the throwback No. 29 car with the white paint scheme one last time.
It's the same car the two-time All-Star winner began his career in after taking over Dale Earnhardt's spot with Richard Childress following Earnhardt's death at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Harvick normally races the No. 4 for Stewart-Haas Racing, but SHR worked out a deal with RCR to allow him to run the No. 29 car.
Earlier in the day, Josh Berry won the All-Star Open to advance to the All-Star race along with second-place finisher Ty Gibbs and fan vote winner Noah Gragson. Berry took the lead with 23 laps remaining when he passed Gibbs on the apron on the inside of the track.
“It’s pretty cool, pretty special to be here,” Gibbs said. "I wasn’t alive when they raced here, but it’s really cool. It’s a worn out race track, but it’s fun. Just kind of looking for patches, looking for grip.”
There were two crashes in the Open race, including one involving Michael McDowell and Justin Haley, who were both running in the top five at the time before Gibbs bumped McDowell.
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