NASCAR & Auto Racing

Never seen NASCAR? That’s what All-Star Race, punches and crashes included, is for.

Lost in the shuffle of a long-awaited Victory Lane celebration — miniature plastic bottles, champagne, boxes full of sponsors’ hats, an 8-pound trophy, and, oh yeah, a briefcase stuffed to the brim with a million dollars cash — was a blonde-haired woman, quietly peeking at the entire scene through slots in a tall black fence.

She wore a flowing red shirt with white polka dots — no particular driver allegiance, or manufacturer ... heck, nothing at all distinguishable.

And yet, as Kyle Larson paraded around smiling after his first victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race, she couldn’t look away. From Larson, naturally, but also from the other fans around her, the ones with autographed No. 42 T-shirts and specialty lanyards.

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She might not have had the emotional investment those other fans had, and yet, here she was:

Right in the thick of the celebration.

Unable to divorce her attention.

And maybe most importantly, beaming as if she worked in Larson’s shop.

The All-Star Race is a novelty event at this point in history. It’s quirky — Saturday’s race was divided into four stages of 30 laps or less — and increasingly used by NASCAR as a means for research. It doesn’t count for any points, and everyone but the winner walks away empty-handed. What was first deployed in 1985 as a pre-show to NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, just isn’t that anymore.

Some media pundits have even pleaded NASCAR to cut the race altogether.

If you abide solely by television ratings, then perhaps there’s an argument to be made. But lost in that? The woman in polka dots, attending her first NASCAR race of any kind, and all the others like her.

And you better believe there were others. Plenty of them. Walking down pit road minutes before the race, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in months with a handful of strangers. He explained he was here with “some new NASCAR fans.” Like the woman in polka dots, they had no specific loyalties to root for or rivals to boo.

But dang if they weren’t impressed by the hulking cars, the mobs surrounding them, and the larger-than-life characters inside them — and that was before the race.

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NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace knocks two Coca-Cola bottles together aka. Stone Cold Steve Austin style after qualifying for the All-Star Race on Saturday. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

What transpired at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night only could have added to that excitement. The All-Star Open, a sort of last-chance qualifier for fringe drivers, yielded three straight rounds of excitement. The first, Charlotte native William Byron won by less than a foot over fan favorite Bubba Wallace. The second, Wallace redeemed himself — only to exit his car, smash two Coke bottles “Stone Cold” Steve Austin-style, and then address his own sense of being a failure. The third, Larson outlasted the remaining competitors to sneak into the main event.

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Then came the real race, and the carnage that naturally followed. Cars ricocheted off one another as often as the walls. Ryan Newman slid through the infield turf, and then got punched several times by Clint Bowyer after the race. Brawls are as common in NASCAR as tire changes and loose lugnuts, so what else would you expect with a million bucks on the line?

“Great race, lot of passion — the kind of things you want,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, “but out of a night like tonight, you kind of almost expect some tempers to flare.”

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NASCAR drivers Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer threw punches at each other following a late-race confrontation in the All-Star Race. Mike McCarn AP

There were insults hurled, blocks thrown on the track, and Larson slithering through all the mess like an eel upstream.

It made for one heck of a show.

It made for one heck of an introduction to NASCAR.

Back to the woman outside Victory Lane. I asked her what she’d thought of the race, and she explained how she’d enjoyed it. There were no complicated rules to decipher, she said, just 19 of the best drivers on the planet all gunning for a briefcase full of cash.

What’s not to like?

She liked that it was short. She liked the fighting. And then, before she walked away, she said those magic words every NASCAR official wants to hear:

“I had fun,” she said shyly. “Maybe I’ll come back again.”

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Kyle Larson hasn’t won a NASCAR race of any kind since 2017, so he celebrated winning the All-Star Race with a burnout. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

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Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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