Will the All-Star race deliver like Kansas did?

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 19: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Ford, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the #19 ARRIS Toyota, lead the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 19, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Saturday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway has garnered rave reviews for its parity and competitiveness. Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas all led laps and played into the final outcome.

Brad Keselowski’s Kansas victory – his third win of the season – means the sport has seen drivers from all three manufacturers hoist trophies in the last three weeks – Chevrolet at Talladega, Toyota at Dover and Ford this past weekend.

It was a similar multi-manufacturer display directly atop the Kansas scoring pylon with Keselowski’s Ford leading Chevrolet’s Alex Bowman and Toyota’s Erik Jones to the checkered flag.

There were 10 different race leaders – eight of whom led double digit laps. Five of the drivers who finished in the top-15 at Kansas started 30th or worse. It all speaks to the possibilities that exist with this new technical package at the 1.5-mile tracks.

“With this package you have to be really scrappy and really fight for every spot,” Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones said. “They’re just really valuable and really tough to get.”

And that kind of “fight” for every position, every lap is what the NASCAR sanctioning body has been intent to deliver. The racing is more naturally like that on the superspeedways at Talladega and Daytona, but judging by the race on Saturday night, it’s something to expect more of at the 1.5-mile tracks as the teams figure out the technical package and the drivers negotiate the intense competition on every lap.

It’s all a positive sign for the sport as it heads into the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. The popular $1 million-to-win All-Star event in NASCAR’s North Carolina backyard is followed a week later at the track by the longest event on the schedule – the Coca-Cola 600 –  all capping a highly-anticipated Memorial Day race slate.

Last year’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star race was essentially a high-profile test ground for the new package that has since been implemented fulltime in 2019. It produced a thrilling show that included 38 green flag passes for the lead and ultimately a cool million dollar paycheck for winner Kevin Harvick.

Drivers fully expect to see a similarly competitive atmosphere in Charlotte during the next two weeks.

“I think it’s part package and part the way the race played out,” Jones said of the Kansas weekend. “The package tonight was the closest iteration that NASCAR is, what I’m guessing, shooting for. We were very close to wide open and there was definitely some pack racing moments after the restarts and stuff like that.”

Not only did Keselowski’s effort at Kansas tie him with Kyle Busch for most wins (three) on the season, his Team Penske teammate, reigning series champion Joey Logano wrangled the championship points lead away from Busch too. Logano now leads the 2015 champion (Busch) by nine-points heading into the non-points paying All-Star weekend – the first time in nine weeks Busch isn’t atop the series standings.

Perhaps more so than in years past, the always-anticipated Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race will not only be an opportunity to connect with fans and work toward a huge paycheck, it will be an important check-up for the team’s package heading into the 600-miler at the track the next week. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch is the last driver to win both the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same season (2010) – in fact, he’s the only driver in the last decade to do so.

And with the 600’s evening start time, Keselowski was pretty sure Saturday’s Kansas night-time thriller would also be a good indicator of where things may stand for the Coca-Cola 600.

“I felt like going into this race that this would be a good – especially with it being a night race and being cool temps, this would be a strong showing for these rules and for the ability to pass and do those things,” Keselowski said. “And obviously I’m a little biased because I won the race, but I felt like it was.

“I feel like you saw the cars run closer than they probably ever have here and saw some pretty good battles throughout the day. And that’s definitely because the rules package. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and if there’s going to be a strength, it’s going to be races like this, and I feel like it delivered.”

Greg Engle