All-Star Race Preview

We get kind of crap shoot to wager on in Saturday night's NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway as restrictor-plates will be attached for racing on a 1.5-mile track for the first time ever.

They've got to do something to slow down Kevin Harvick, right? And since it's a non-points exhibition race, NASCAR can use it to see if there's something they can apply for the 2019 season. Next week it's back to normal with Harvick in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

But this week we get the unknown with 21 drivers eligible to win the $1 million giant check -- it really is a big check, just like a Las Vegas jackpot winner gets. With no points involved, drivers go all out and save nothing. It's checkers or wreckers.

“There’s a million dollars on the line,” said Clint Bowyer, who the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted at 15-to-1 odds to win. “How do you think we’re going to race? It’s $1 million. Think about that – $1 million on the line. It’s about money and a trophy.”

Bowyer is 0-for-8 in All-Star Races and because Harvick is his teammate, you know he's going to have some good stuff capable of winning. But Bowyer is so wild and crazy that you know he's a high risk of exiting the race early by chasing that dangling $1 million carrot too hard.

In addition to the plates being strapped on, which reduces the horsepower by 250, NASCAR also created rear drag by raising the spoiler up to six inches and added front aero ducts that will move the air to the side of the car before it hits the front wheels. This package is modeled after what NASCAR used at Indianapolis last season in the Xfinity Series. The desired end result is cars being bunched up together like at Daytona and Talladega with lots of lead changes.

Martin Truex Jr. has dominated Charlotte lately, including leading a record 392 of the 400 laps in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600 and winning there last fall, but he's 0-for-6 in the All-Star Race with a runner-up in 2010 as his best finish. He's going to let it all hang out in this race as well with a lot less learning to take note of than years past.

"Since this year’s All-Star race won’t offer much help for the Coca-Cola 600 due to the rules package, the only goal is to win it,” said Truex, who is 8-to-1 to win. “It’s an all or nothing race. It’s not about points, it’s not about anything else. It’s just about going for the million bucks.”

If it works out well and the racing is competitive, expect to see the program used more next season and beyond and I'm fine with it and so are some of the drivers.

“I’m all for trying something different," said Chase Elliott, who is 18-to-1 to win. "They saw it as an opportunity to try in a racing circumstance, which is the way we need to be trying things. Going out running by yourself with a new package is not going to teach you a whole lot. I think us being in a racing environment with a new set of rules will show whether it’s a good direction or not.”

Elliott is going to have to race himself into the All-Star Race by winning one of the three stages in the Open qualifying race (20-20-10 laps) or get voted in by the fans as the fourth and final way of participating for the $1 million prize. One way or another, he'll be in the All-Star Race unless he wrecks in the Open. NASCAR needs Elliott to start winning some races and help stop the hemorrhaging of a sport the France family had Goldman-Sachs shop around to see what interest there was.

Anyway, the racing should be entertaining. And while I don't mind seeing Harvick win every week -- five wins in 12 races -- I do at least like to see him work for it, which he did Saturday night at Kansas. It depends on which week you catch me because my opinion on this changes all the time. Still, there is a major divide between those who are fast and those that aren't on the big horsepower tracks.

This package evens things out which is why the odds are so short. Austin Dillon was 200-to-1 win at the 1.5-mile layout at Kansas last week and he's 30-to-1 this week on Charlotte's 1.5-mile layout when plates are added. By the way, Dillon is a good look, too. He's been at his best in plate races -- winning the Daytona 500 in February -- and he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last season.

The biggest question with the changes is how the cars will actually run. Will the cars be able to bunch together and maintain a draft when the straightaways are so short? Remember, Talladega's layout is 2.66-miles and Daytona is 2.5-miles. Charlotte might be too small to make it look anything like typical plate racing we're accustomed to so I've put a lot of extra consideration for the teams that have had a sweet balance set-up on their cars on 1.5-mile tracks. Yes, so we have Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Truex that fit the criteria.

“It’s going to be crazy," said 2010 All-Star Race winner Kurt Busch. "It’s going to box us all in like we’re at a superspeedway, but we’re at a mile-and-a-half. So, are guys going to be shoving into a three-wide hole when they know they can’t get out of it? That’s going to be the question.”

I was also told by someone at the track that Jimmie Johnson took his new car and ran some laps at Charlotte in an unofficial test session and came away with a top speed of 155 mph. To show how slow that is as a comparison, consider that Harvick's winning pole speed in the Coca-Cola 600 last season was 193 mph without the plates.

“This is going to be a very unique weekend, for sure," said Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, who has set up winning All-Star Race cars a record four times. "These are the things I honestly enjoy. I like to go into an event with a lot of unknowns as it’s always fun to find or hit on something that maybe another team had not. The lack of horsepower and increase in downforce on the Lowe’s for Pros Chevy Camaro will make it fairly easy to handle, especially by themselves. Once in the draft, I really don’t know what is going to happen – I think that is the biggest unknown for everyone right now. I think the drivers will be able to hold the cars wide open.

“The downside is we usually use this race to help us figure out where we are at for the 600-mile event there – and that is not the case this weekend. But the All-Star Race is about fun, the pit crews are highlighted with qualifying and the rules package will make for a good show.”

Yes, the Coca-Cola 600 angle is a huge downside. It used to be a mini-preview to who would be fast the following week in the longest race of the season. But this year it isn't too hard. Let's take a guess, Harvick and Kyle will both be fast and probably hook-up as another 1-2 finish.

As for this week, it is somewhat of a crapshoot. I'll give an edge to the good plate Ford teams, but the unknown makes it so cool. I cut down my usual bankroll because I'm betting fewer match-ups with all the unknowns, but I did bet half of what I intend to on a few drivers to win with odds I think will drop. I'll make some wagers Friday night after all the practices and qualifying.

The All-Star Race itself is broken in up into four stages (30-20-20-10 laps) with the fourth stage winner getting the big $1 million check. It's a short race and hopefully, the cars aren't too bunched up together because one wreck could wipe out all 21 drivers in a domino effect. Be sure to pay close attention to who is fast Friday during practice and qualifying.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #41 Kurt Busch (12/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
3) #22 Joey Logano (12/1)
4) #12 Ryan Blaney (10/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (12/1)