NASCAR All-Star Race delivers something for everyone

CONCORD, N.C. -- Are you not entertained?!

Beneath a Saturday night full moon, the NASCAR All-Star Race featured tricked-out race cars, a frantic pace, four-wide racing, a gaggle of superstar front-runners, a surprise winner and postrace fisticuffs.

As a cloud of yellow burnout smoke blasted from the tires of Kyle Larson's victorious Chevy, the drivers who had dominated the night -- Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, leaders of 48 of the 88 laps -- spewed steam about their squandered chances; and a pair of faded nonfactors -- Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman -- had to be physically separated by crewmen after Bowyer dove into the window of Newman's car to throw a handful of quick punches.

"I'm not sure what else y'all would want!" exclaimed Bubba Wallace, after taking a moment to look over his badly damaged Chevy that he had somehow steered to fifth. "We were out there running four-wide, at Charlotte! And we've got two dudes beating the hell out of each other. I'm glad I was out there racing, but I would have also enjoyed watching."

Fourth-place finisher Joey Logano agreed.

"You can call what just happened a lot of things," he said, "but boring is not one of them."

For the larger part of the past decade, boring was a big problem for the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Thanks to a streak of forgettable finishes and an inability to live up to nostalgia, the race formerly known as The Winston became the unwitting poster child for NASCAR's well-publicized struggles. No offense to the likes of Logano and Jimmie Johnson, but their All-Star wins earned by one second-plus margins were never going to match the posterized All-Star moments such as Davey Allison's "One Hot Night" in 1992, Dale Earnhardt's "Pass in the Grass" in 1987 or Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip's crews brawling in Victory Lane in 1989.

But just as the "they've gotta move this race out of Charlotte" chatter was becoming a real conversation, the past two editions of NASCAR's All-Star Race have easily ranked among the most entertaining of the event's 35-year history.

Last year's race, featuring an experimental performance package, was so eye-popping that it prompted the sanctioning body to implement those rules throughout the 2019 regular season. On Saturday night, the cars that sliced and diced their way through this year's All-Star exhibition included those rules, with the added twist of a pair of muscle car nostril-like exhaust ports punched into the hood.

The result was a flurry of close stage finishes, from the three-segment Monster Energy Open preliminary race through the four-segment main event, punctuated by multiple stanzas of three- and four-wide racing.

Larson had been winless since September of his Cup title-contending year in 2017, a slump packed with a dozen second- and third-place finishes. Earlier in the day, NASCAR had released the details of an exhaustive report trying to determine the reasons behind his frightening barrel roll crash at Talladega one month ago. The All-Star win doesn't pay championship points or earn Larson a NASCAR postseason berth ("Thanks for reminding me," he quipped), but the racer said that the All-Star trophy and the confidence that comes with it would be worth more than even the $1 million paycheck.

"When you get so close so many times, it's so easy to get down on yourself, and unfortunately, we've been here before with a slump," Larson explained, one of only two drivers who ran all seven stages on the night, having to win the Open to race his way into the main event. "The format definitely helped. The shorter segments feel a lot like my sprint car racing background. But what really helped was how crazy the racing was. We were never out of it.

"You grow from your losses, and I've had to do a lot of growing!" the 26-year old Californian said with a laugh. "But it feels so good to finally leave a racetrack with a smile on my face."

Newman left with a red spot on his face, thanks to Bowyer trying to punch a second pair of nostril-like exhaust ports into his mug. Newman, who finished 13th, claimed that 12th-place Bowyer cut him off during the race, so he hit Bowyer after the checkered flag to express his displeasure.

"It doesn't take much of a man to try and fight somebody with a helmet on," Newman said of being rushed by Bowyer on pit road. "I think he should be embarrassed of himself."

Bowyer's response: "Hell, I thought he was a lap down ... after the race, he runs into my back and turns me all around. I pulled up next to him, and he dumped me into [Turn] 4. Where I come from, you get punched in the nose for that, so that's what he got."

What everyone else got was an entertaining evening at the racetrack. Finally, a show worthy of its All-Star title and the second in a row.

"There are guys who aren't happy and there are guys who are really happy and a couple of guys fighting and one guy winning," said Larson, the guy who had done the winning. "That's a pretty good night at the racetrack as far as I'm concerned, and not just for me."