CHARLOTTE, NC (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - Ricky Stenhouse Jr. practically stole the words out of everybody's mouths.
"I don't know how they are going to drive," Stenhouse said ahead of Saturday's All-Star Race. "I think that's an unknown."
And he's spot on. Due to rain showers in the area, NASCAR drivers spent most of their time at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday doing anything but driving.
Now things still worked out well enough for Stenhouse, who will start second in Saturday's All-Star Race (TV, 8 p.m.).
Same for his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who will start on the pole in just his second race this season.
But on the whole? Nobody really knows what to expect. (That's what should make this fun though, right?)
Have no fear. There are still plenty of storylines to digest and dive into this weekend, everything from past champs to wary weather.
So behold, three things to watch for in Saturday's All-Star race, plus a total unknown that could decide this whole dang thing:
1. Can Kevin Harvick keep up his recent streak?
Harvick's recent run of form, really his entire season to date, has been absurd. Silly, even. Harvick has won five of the first 12 races this year, including back-to-back wins the last two weekends at Dover and Kansas. His dominance has finally gotten to the point where other drivers are beginning to question how fair his current car is.
Harvick will begin the All-Star Race in fourth, but during qualifying, he had the same ridiculous speed that has become so standard for him this year. If not for a few hitches in his timed pit stop, Harvick clearly had the top-end speed to challenge for Saturday's victory. He also was fastest during the very short practice teams had earlier Friday. Harvick has only won the All-Star Race once (in 2007), but if he can convert that raw speed he showed Friday into a full-out run, he has as good a chance as anyone to come away with the cash prize.
2. Or will Kyle Busch go back-to-back?
If not for Harvick's excellence this season, we'd probably be talking a lot more about how good Kyle Busch has been. A second-place finish in the championship race in November could have left Busch in a funk to begin 2018, but it's been the opposite: That close defeat has clearly fueled the 2015 Cup Series champion, as he's already won three races this year.
On Saturday, he'll be hoping that momentum carries over to the All-Star Race ... which, oh yeah, he won in 2017. Busch qualified a very middle-of-the-pack seventh on Friday night, meaning he'll have to climb a few spots to make a true run at a second straight All-Star title. But if this season has been any indication, Busch has the capacity to do that.
Another thing to monitor with Busch: any advantages he might have from racing Friday night in the Camping World Truck Series race. Completely different cars and rules and packages, but it's a warmup at the very least. And as Busch has proved all year, giving him any sort of advantage can prove dangerous to the rest of the field.
3. A blast from the past with a chance to win
Matt Kenseth! When Kenseth and RFR announced his return to the Cup Series about a month ago, there was rightfully some pause before placing any expectations on a part-time driver. And in his debut at Kansas last week, Kenseth validated some of those concerns by crashing out almost immediately.
But now? Kenseth's on the pole in just his second race back, and even if the All-Star Race qualifying is sort of wonky, it's still a heck of an accomplishment. Kenseth last won the All-Star Race in 2004, the year after he won his only Cup Series championship, and has been on the pole twice before. Could he still have some of that magic left? A pole position would suggest so, but how that carries over to Saturday will be worth monitoring.
As for that unknown.
4. No practice, plus crazy new rules means
Chaos, to be blunt. Stenhouse joked that his four laps in practice Friday were among the most by any driver, but it's true. Rain around CMS meant drivers had about 15 minutes of practice time Friday (and even that allotment is probably being generous), and then they qualified without having gotten back in their cars. Maybe that had something to do with the unusual qualifying.
But in all seriousness, that lack of practice is about the only thing that could have made this year's All-Star Race more hectic and unpredictable. NASCAR already turned some heads when it announced this year's unconventional rules package, which will feature restrictor plates at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time. Given the unpredictable nature of this new package, combined with the lack of practice, well, nearly anything could happen Saturday. Racing single-file or bumping in a pack? Slipping around or holding ground?