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North Wilkesboro Turning Point: RFK enters title picture, and which All-Star will get their game on?

Here‘s what‘s happening in the world of NASCAR with Darlington in the rearview and the All-Star Race (Sun., 8 p.m. ET, FS1) right around the corner.

THE LINEUP ️

1️⃣ Who is the ‘third team?’ We have our answer

2️⃣ There are All-Star drivers — and then there’s Kyle Larson

3️⃣ Everything you need to know for All-Star Weekend

4️⃣ Today’s All-Stars among the best of all time

5️⃣ Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

jack roush and brad keselowski stand in victory lane
jack roush and brad keselowski stand in victory lane

1. Who is the ‘third team?’ We have our answer

RFK Racing appears to have found the performance it’s been lacking, and the Ford organization has entered the title picture along with the juggernauts.

Before the race at Kansas Speedway, we asked in this space: “Gibbs, Hendrick … and who else?

Our answer might’ve come in Sunday’s thriller at Darlington Raceway.

Positioned as one of the teams riding the most second-half momentum into this past offseason, RFK Racing came out of the gates in 2024 a little … flat.

No. 17 driver Chris Buescher and No. 6 driver/co-owner Brad Keselowski combined for just one top 10 through the first three races after many had pegged them both as potential early winners, with each of the first two races employing the superspeedway style of racing — long RFK’s specialty.

In the time since, there have been spurts of 2023-like runs; Keselowski turning in back-to-back top fives at Phoenix and Bristol, with Buescher also landing a runner-up and P7 in those races before adding another pair of top 10s in the next two weeks. Then some more hits and misses for each over the following month … but now?

The duo looks like, at the midpoint of the regular season, Ford’s best shot at the 2024 Cup Series Championship. And together, they have a good one.

Neither has yet to crack the top 10 in points — they’re currently 11th and 12th after the 2012 champ’s win Sunday at Darlington — but is there another organization beyond Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing right now that you can confidently see a path to the Championship 4 for its full lineup of drivers? Plenty can happen from here, but RFK might be the only other one, albeit with just a two-driver stable.

With Keselowski, once a perennial contender to reach the Championship 4 and a two-time visitor, back to his winning ways and Buescher rounding into an extremely formidable veteran force — that, apparently, should not be trifled with — RFK appears to have widened the title picture considerably.

The most interesting part? The early-season woes may not have been the team searching for answers but rather things going according to plan.

MORE: Keselowski, crew fly the flag after streak-snapping triumph: ‘It‘s a heck of a ride‘

“We took a pretty big step back over the offseason. It was with a lot of intentionality in a couple critical categories,” Keselowski said in his post-race press conference Sunday. “We paid for that dearly to start the year and kind of lost some performance. But it was in the name of being able to do this right here: Win races honest and be competitive, and the two steps forward are just now being realized. It never comes as quick as you want it to. It‘s a tedious, painful process that takes a deep grind at all levels, whether that‘s the driver level, the organizational level, the pit crew level. But that grind is worth it when you have moments like this. I surely appreciate it.”

And, surely, the plan is to win the 2024 championship.

Perhaps that goes accordingly, too.

 

kyle larson celebrates at north wilkesboro
kyle larson celebrates at north wilkesboro

2. There are All-Star drivers — and then there’s Kyle Larson

The No. 5 driver and championship favorite has been nearly unstoppable in the All-Star Race in recent years, but who might topple him?

Hendrick Motorsports, in its infancy, was initially named All-Star Racing, but it might as well still be the team’s moniker in spirit.

NASCAR’s winningest organization once again has its yearly stacked lineup of four drivers with championship aspirations — but first, there’s an All-Star Race to win.

The Concord, North Carolina-based team was once a stone’s throw away from the multi-generational site of NASCAR’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and if there was ever such a thing as “home-field-track advantage” in NASCAR, Hendrick found it. The team is the all-time All-Star leader in: starts (127), drivers with a start (23), total wins (11), different winners (5), top fives (43), top 10s (71) and laps led (990).

It obviously works out for the team over the long term, too, as each of the last seven times a driver has won the All-Star Race and the championship in the same year, it’s been a driver delivering the title for Rick Hendrick.

MORE: Drivers to win All-Star Race, championship in same year

The exhibition has since moved to a different venue than Charlotte the past four years, but even that didn’t matter — Hendrick still won three of ’em.

It helps when you have a driver like Kyle Larson.

Not only has driver No. 5 won two of the three All-Star Races he’s entered under the Hendrick banner, but he has three total wins (one shy of Jimmie Johnson’s record four). The first one came in 2019 when he became the first driver to win after transferring into the main race since Kasey Kahne did so in 2008. Nobody’s done it since.

Needless to say, he was one of those who backed up his All-Star win with a championship in 2021.

And now for the fun part — who’s going to be the guy to spoil the party and claim that $1 million prize instead?

The team’s odds to win sees them with three drivers in the top eight, according to DraftKings, so it’s still going to be difficult … but Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin actually opened as the favorite at 11-2 to win. Hamlin has been the 1B to Larson’s 1A this year, but it’s notable that Toyota is winless in the last six All-Star Races, while Chevy has turned in four checkered flags, and Larson was serving a suspension during one of those six contests.

Darlington winner Brad Keselowski is probably the most “due” of anybody in the garage, as the driver with the most career laps led and the most runner-ups in the race without winning it. We just saw him snap one spectacular streak in shining fashion — why not under the lights for the big prize, too?

Kes’ former Team Penske cohort Joey Logano might be the better bet, however. The 2016 winner has finished in the top 10 in the last nine All-Star Races, by far the longest active streak and tied for the longest of all time. Sunday might be just the kind of race he needs to spark an otherwise frustrating campaign for the two-time champion.

What’s so interesting about the 2024 season, though, is that despite the Gibbs and Hendrick dominance, it feels like we’re seeing fresh names compete for wins and big, late-race moments every weekend. While on paper it lines up as another Hendrick/JGR win penciled in, who’s to say somebody like Ross Chastain doesn’t figure out a new and inventive and probably questionable way around the legendary track, or Buescher straight-up wills his way to the checkered with the past two weeks adding fuel to the fire? Or even reigning champ Ryan Blaney, the 2022 All-Star Race winner, doing the exact same thing after a frustrating Darlington exit while seeing his former teammate and boss be the first one to break through for Ford this year?

We’re getting to the juicy part of the season where the temperatures — and with them, the tempers — rapidly increase. We could very well see fireworks on Sunday night and you’re not going to want to miss it.

There’s $1 million on the line, after all.

What wouldn’t they do?

3. Everything you need to know for All-Star Weekend

Kim Coon and Ryan Flores break down the ins and outs of a thrilling All-Star Weekend ahead at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

4. Today’s All-Stars among the best of all time

NASCAR’s current era is loaded with superstar-level talent, and some of their All-Star Race numbers are among the sport’s legends.

Best average finish in the All-Star Race (min. four starts)

Driver

Average finish

Starts

Ken Schrader

6.13

8

Davey Allison

6.14

7

Joey Logano*

6.46

13

Dale Earnhardt

7.13

16

Daniel Suárez*

7.25

4

Kyle Larson*

7.43

7

Jimmie Johnson*

7.79

19

Chase Elliott*

8.00

8

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

8.39

18

Bill Elliott

8.44

18

Matt Kenseth

8.53

19

Ryan Blaney*

8.57

7

*Denotes active driver

5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Power Rankings: Ty Gibbs set to be a major factor in 2024 All-Star Race?

All-Star Paint Scheme Preview: See the schemes for North Wilkesboro

Longest streaks between wins in NASCAR Cup Series history

Three Up, Three Down: Drivers in focus leaving Darlington

NASCAR betting: Opening odds for All-Star Race

Cam Waters joins RFK‘s Stage 60, set for Cup debut at Sonoma

Jimmie Johnson to join NBC Sports for four races in 2024

First look: Chase Elliott’s Coca-Cola 600 paint scheme

Amazon Prime Video to open its 2025 race coverage with Coca-Cola 600

@nascarcasm: Fake texts to Darlington winner Brad Keselowski

Which driver is favored to win 2024 title after Darlington?

 

cars wreck at north wilkesboro
cars wreck at north wilkesboro