The argument could be made that Wednesday night at North Wilkesboro was the most significant single day event in the history of traveling short track racing. It was certainly the most star-studded — as if the Snowball Derby, Oxford 250 and Martinsville 300 all ran consecutively over a span of six hours.
A Tuesday rainout forced the ASA STARS national Super Late Models to race on the same day as both CARS Tour divisions. Each race featured numerous NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series regulars alongside the full-time contenders in each division.
The CARS Tour race included Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. The latter also raced in the ASA National race alongside Chase Elliott, William Byron and Noah Gragson.
And perhaps the biggest win for the discipline that night was that the three races were respectively won by Augie Grill, Brenden Queen and Bubba Pollard, each veteran mainstays of their classes who would not be overshadowed by the Stars of Sunday.
It was a night that legitimized the discipline on a more national platform in a lot of ways.
And while Dale Earnhardt Jr. the driver very much would have liked to ride the platform to Victory Lane in his Sun Drop No. 3, watching the three short track devotees be celebrated in the same fashion as the NASCAR winners this weekend was every bit why he advocated so long for this kind of event.
“It’s weird, because I’m sitting here right now, frustrated by the result,” Earnhardt said after the CARS Tour race. “I’m jealous of Butterbean up there on the building. I’m happy for Butterbean. I’m happy for their team. This is exactly what CARS Tour is all about, right? Coming to places like this and having a career night.
“That’s what we wanted to provide for our drivers and owners, that experience right there.”
This is why Earnhardt races at North Wilkesboro and why he feels so strong about getting his peers in a Late Model of some kind too.
Harvick didn’t plan on racing North Wilkesboro, instead waiting until after his Cup career to do some kind of moonlighting, but Earnhardt talked him into it — citing the value of making the whole week special beyond the NASCAR content.
He bought in.
“It’s important to take the momentum that we have with short track asphalt oval racing that we have at this particular time and grow it, but also not outgrow our competitors,” Harvick said. “I think the most important thing we talk about with our group is how do we keep it as much the same as possible for our racers and give it a bigger platform to show them off? We spend a lot of time with it.”
Grill and Pollard aren’t going to be NASCAR drivers, but Queen still has those ambitions, so winning in Wilkes County served two purposes in both elevating short track racing but also to give those younger drivers a chance to elevate their stock nationally.
Josh Berry, after all, has gone from Late Model champion to the most coveted Cup Series free agent in a span of three years.
At 23, Queen says CARS Tour is a vehicle for a driver like him, who isn’t a teenaged driver development project to come in elevate his stock. He joined Lee Pulliam Performance over the winter to win marquee races.
“I’m here to showcase on a more national level,” Queen said. “The CARS Tour is the toughest competition in the country for Late Model Stocks, and to beat the best, you have to race in this series. Wins are so hard to get, and you don’t know when you’ll get another one.”
Then there is Pollard, the quintessential blue-collar short track racer, who legitimately digs ditches when not racing for the family business. He gave up the NASCAR dream a long time ago and now races for pride and to elevate his discipline.
Pollard was famously fined and penalized for fighting Casey Roderick after the debut event for the ASA National tour event at Five Flags Speedway in March. He was docked the entirety of his earnings and points for throwing the first punch that night.
It would have been really easy for his to disavow the series and go run other tours or even a Late Model Stock.
But now, with finishes of second and first in the succeeding weeks, Pollard is both back in the championship mix and fully committed to ASA and what promoter Bob Sargent is trying to build.
“I have said from the very beginning that we have needed something like this in our kind of racing,” Pollard said. “We need someone to come in and help us build it. Everyone is trying to make something that will last a long time and we have to do it together.
“And sometimes, they’re going to make decisions you don’t agree with or don’t like, but you know they’re in it for the right reasons. And that’s why we kept supporting it and why we keep racing.”
But man, imagine if the penalty wasn’t that severe or if Pollard had chosen not to throw the punch …
“We would be sitting pretty right now, wouldn’t we?” he said.
But again, Wednesday night was about showcasing how much fun touring Late Model racing is right now, and how compelling its star racers are in Pollard, Queen, Grill, Stephen Nasse, Andrew Grady, Connor Hall, Mason Diaz, Bobby McCarty and Derek Thorn.
These are big personalities getting to shine on a big stage this week, something Harvick has learned in his brief foray as a CARS Tour co-owner.
“Short track racing is back,” Harvick said. “It’s something people want to see and when you go, you see it’s a lifestyle.”
Short-track ace Bubba Pollard didn’t have any problems holding off William Byron and Chase Elliott on Wednesday night as he raced those drivers when they were moving through the ranks. I was curious. Have they changed as drivers since becoming Cup stars? Pollard said no. pic.twitter.com/u9O7Byf7TZ
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) May 18, 2023
CARS Tour is doing really good business this year in its first season under the ownership of Earnhardt, Harvick, Jeff Burton and Justin Marks. In fact, it did higher viewership numbers last night on FloRacing than the Castrol Flo Night in America mid-week Dirt Late Model series.
Earnhardt hopes ASA gets to experience similar growth in the coming years and wants to work together where possible.
“Bob is a great guy and he’s been doing this a long time,” Earnhardt said. “So the ASA thing, I think is in great hands. I think we can work some more over the calendar year down the road. Our cars are so different that we don’t compete with each other, car counts and so forth.
“Anyhow, CARS Tour has a lot of potential and it’s doing so well. Our ownership group, we all recognize things that can improve. That’s a process that won’t happen overnight, but we have an opportunity to go places we never have before. It’s going to take time.
“The series has a bright future and we just have to take our time with it.”
Perfecting the ASA STARS formula remains a work in progress for promoter Bob Sargent.
They still haven’t put together an event, either through misfortune or a self-inflicted wound, where there hasn’t been some kind of controversy or drama. For North Wilkesboro, it was Mother Nature, something Sargent and Tim Bryant couldn’t control.
It washed out qualifying, under the worst-case scenario, where a dozen cars had already turned a lap.
The race procedures deduce that the series may opt to use combined practice speeds to set the field but that isn’t really satisfying for an event that had 55 entries and was going to send twentyplus cars home before the main event.
Due to the procedures, most of the teams relegated to the last chance race packed up on Tuesday night, mostly because they didn’t want to start the feature on 20 lap old tires if they transferred through.
A large majority of those teams had no issues attempting to race their way in, but just didn’t want to be at a 20-lap disadvantage to start the feature and would have willingly bought a set of tires.
In hindsight, Sargent felt the cost-saving element was in the best interest of the teams, but racers countered with the conviction that they have already spent fuel and lodging to be at North Wilkesboro so what’s another set at that point?
So, Sargent has conceded that in the future, in a scenario like this, he would probably just allow those last chance teams to buy a new set of stickers.
As it stands, the race, which was also a Southern Super Series points race, lost Hunter Robbins from a season long standpoint but also notable NASCAR participants like Erik Jones, Chandler Smith and Johnny Sauter.
Grant Enfinger won the Last Chance Race but was very adamant before the feature that Hooiser had enough inventory, and ASA should have let the transfers race on a level playing field.
Sargent doesn’t entirely disagree and it was a lesson learned moving forward.
Meanwhile, veteran racers like Derek Thorn and Dan Fredrickson, offer patience.
“ASA did a good job in the drivers meeting explaining that practice time would be the qualifying time,” Thorn said. “It didn’t surprise anyone, but they tried to accommodate everyone, and by doing that, it opened the door up for a lot of opinions.
“Ricky Brooks (did) a really good of keeping things narrow, it is what it is whether you like it or not, and in time people will get used to that with ASA too. There was just frustration with the weather and ASA was doing the best they could with what they had.
“The competitors who missed the show are pissed. There are some guys going home because they didn’t want to run a last chance race, but at the end of the day, that’s racing. You can’t control the uncontrollable.”
And then this Facebook post from Fredrickson speaks volumes given his disqualification after winning the Joe Shear Classic at Madison.
The ASA STARS tour is trying to build up a big big deal here for super late models. They’ve had a lot of hiccups and growing pains along the way and they vow to learn from them. They’ve also had some things that have nothing to do with them make them look bad, for instance everybody crashing each other every two laps at the first race in Pensacola and now the rain yesterday and having little say in how the schedule runs today in North Wilksboro.
It’s easy to trash them and call them names but I can tell you with all certainty that there’s a few really good people in that deal that work their tail off to build something bigger for super late models than we’ve ever had.