The NASCAR All-Star Race continues its search for a permanent home with a stop at Texas Motor Speedway. The 2021 edition of the race on Sunday (8 p.m. ET on FS1, preceded by All-Star Open at 6 p.m.) will be at its third different track in the past three years after races at Charlotte Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval turned out underwhelming.
Can a trip to the Lone Star State jump-start the sport's lagging exhibition? After all, this track is the same size as CMS, running a similar handling package that had Kyle Larson dominating to the tune of a 10-second win in last month's Coca-Cola 600.
TMS President Eddie Gossage seems to think so, pushing the sport to reimagine the format with a record number of stages and field inversions. His final race before retirement will feature a format that doesn't have more than 30 straight laps of green-flag racing at once.
Rounds 1-4: 15 laps each
Round 5: 30 laps
Round 6: 10 laps
The field will be inverted multiple times. After round one, it'll be eight to 12 drivers (the exact number will be determined via a random draw). After round two, it's guaranteed to be the entire field. After round three, it will be eight to 12 drivers again before the field is reconfigured entirely after round four.
That's when the field will really settle in, going for the $1 million grand prize. The lineup for that 30-lap segment will be based on a driver's average finish in rounds one through four. It's complicated, but the goal is to keep people from sandbagging in order to start up front once the field gets inverted in another round.
During round five, there's a mandatory four-tire stop to bring the focus to the crews on pit road. The fastest team will earn a $100,000 bonus as this round becomes the setup for the final 10-lap segment. Where you finish here is where you'll start in the final dash for that million-dollar bonus.
The question is whether any of these shenanigans will slow down Larson, easily the hottest driver on tour with the 550-horsepower package (reduced to 510 for the All-Star Race with a tapered spacer adjustment). Larson, the All-Star Race winner in 2019, is coming off the first back-to-back wins of his Cup Series career.
Defending All-Star champion Chase Elliott may be Larson's top challenger along with last fall's Texas winner Kyle Busch. But keep an eye on drivers that transfer out of the All-Star Open, including the Fan Vote winner. Getting a little extra track time always seems to help that group and turn at least one of the four into solid contenders.
The hope is for a photo finish or some sort of rivalry that reignites interest in the race. Can Texas create some new memories nearly 30 years after "One Hot Night?"
NASCAR All-Star Open / All-Star Race
Date: Sunday, June 13
Time: 6 p.m. ET (All-Star Open), 8 p.m. ET (All-Star Race)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Kyle Larson earned his first road course victory at Sonoma, leading 57 laps from the pole. But Chase Elliott came in second, the fourth straight race HMS has posted a 1-2 finish in the Cup Series.
The last month has been the strongest for the company since Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon battled mano-e-mano for the title back in 2007. Back then, they won six of 10 playoff races, finishing 1-2 in the final standings. Johnson captured four straight events, cementing his status as the sport's best postseason driver while Gordon setting a modern-era record for top-10 finishes (30).
Who's at the Back: Ryan Newman
You never want outside distractions as a race team and Newman's No. 6 Ford hasn't performed well since the rumors about Brad Keselowski coming on as Roush Fenway Racing part-owner started circulating. Runs of 24th at Circuit of the Americas, 27th at Charlotte, and 33rd at Sonoma have taken Newman out of postseason contention while his full-time NASCAR future comes under greater scrutiny for 2022 and beyond.
Roger Penske continues to be noncommittal on his driver lineup for 2022. When pressed on primary driver Brad Keselowski's status with the team, Penske claimed, "We have a contract with [Keselowski] the rest of the season. Anything he's going to do or we're going to do, we'll make announcements properly at the right time." Penske also didn't commit to Austin Cindric remaining in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford for next season, leaving the door open he could be moved over to the No. 2.
Speaking of the Wood Brothers, they've parted ways with longtime crew chief Greg Erwin. Erwin has been with the Woods since 2018, manning the pit box for Paul Menard and current driver Matt DiBenedetto. But DiBenedetto has struggled this season, posting just three top-10 finishes while slipping to 17th in the standings, 60 points outside of playoff position with 10 races remaining.
The SRX Series, with five former full-time NASCAR drivers, debuts Saturday night at Stafford Springs Speedway. Greg Biffle will start from the pole position in Heat 1 in a race that's set for prime time (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Playoff points collected by Kyle Larson this season, the most of any driver. Martin Truex Jr. (18) and Alex Bowman (10) are the only others in double digits.
Margin points leader Denny Hamlin has on the playoff bubble and 177th-place Matt DiBenedetto. Hamlin could be in a position to clinch a spot as much as six races early depending on circumstances.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson leads the way for this year's All-Star Race, posting 48/10 odds according to the latest on vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are next up with 17/2 odds, followed by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick (8/1).
What I Think
It's hard to bet against Kyle Larson right now. No matter the format, the No. 5 Chevrolet is on another planet on intermediate ovals in 2021. Expect him to win the $1 million bonus and further cement his status as the championship co-favorite with Martin Truex Jr.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.