NORTH WILKESBORO, NC — As Kyle Larson found himself trapped in a skirmish with Josh Berry, Ty Gibbs and Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched from a suite in Turn 4, shifting in his seat as the action escalated. Uncrossing his legs and leaning forward, Earnhardt apparently sensed something was about to happen during Sunday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
His intuition turned out to be correct. Jones tagged Gibbs, pushing him onto the track and creating an opening that allowed Larson to separate Jones and Berry as the four cars bounced off each other.
Just like that, Earnhardt sounded a beep: “Oh, three wide! Good luck” while pointing and waving his finger at the peloton of cars on the short 5/8th mile track. Then once things calmed down, he leaned back in his seat and relaxed.
“I’m looking for battles and contacts,” Earnhardt said. “Who’s mad at whom.”
The same is true when watching a NASCAR race with Earnhardt. Watching a race with him is like watching a race with a good mate at a bar. Expect plenty of ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ mixed with a continuous commentary of what’s happening on the track and plenty of anecdotes about his experiences in a sport the 48-year-old has always been linked to.
Those stories that night centered on previous visits to North Wilkesboro, the venerable track in rural North Carolina that Earnhardt played a leading role in revitalizing. Like the time as a teenager he and a few friends played a practical joke on Davey Allison, then one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, which involved hiding Allison’s jacket while he was in the bathroom. Another involved NASCAR star Ernie Irvan gifting Earnhardt with a remote control car he built. Then there was a fond memory he had of when he was a young boy and first came here to watch his father’s race.
“This place is special to me,” he said. “It’s special for a lot of people.”
Earnhardt sitting in North Wilkesboro watching the All-Star Race would have been unfathomable not too long ago. Sunday night marked NASCAR’s first visit since 1996. And if Earnhardt hadn’t started the effort to clean up the track in December 2019 so it could be digitally preserved, it’s very possible that North Wilkesboro would have remained closed. – an abandoned, ramshackle track with no path to modern relevance.
But North Wilkesboro isn’t just another track for Earnhardt. This one has special significance as North Wilkesboro represents the fabric of the sport, having been on the first series first schedule in 1949 and then every year until it closed when its owners abandoned it in favor of newer venues. and more sophisticated in larger markets.
Therefore, as Earnhardt sat sipping a Busch Light before the race, he couldn’t help but reflect on how far the track has come in such a short time.
Over the past year, the track has undergone a massive multi-million dollar facelift, largely thanks to government funding made available in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to stimulate the economy. The restoration allowed North Wilkesboro to make a somewhat unlikely comeback, culminating this week with the track hosting the CARS Tour and ASA regional series on Tuesday and Wednesday, then the Cup and Truck Series on the weekend. Each race was held in front of a lively crowd that included Earnhardt, who until Tuesday had not seen the fully renovated North Wilkesboro because he wanted his first glimpse to come when he was watching a race.
“I was patiently waiting for the moment when I could come in and sit in the chair and open a beer and watch some racing,” Earnhardt said. “And I knew in that moment, looking at everyone who was like-minded as me at that moment, how crazy it was. The energy and the emotion that comes out of it is unique .
” I can not believe it. Sitting here watching this doesn’t feel real; it all sounds very surreal.
Top 5, North Wilkesboro: Breaking down NASCAR’s All-Star Race weekend
As Earnhardt spoke, the peloton finished their pace laps. When asked who his pick was to win, he tabled pole sitter Daniel Suárez, who had raced well in the preliminary races earlier in the week. Another driver cited was Chris Buescher, who went from strength to strength in winning his qualifying race on Saturday night.
“His shit is on a rail,” Earnhardt noted.
That Earnhardt mentioned Buescher is fitting given that 42 months ago the RFK Racing driver was part of a group of volunteers who showed up with Earnhardt to help clean up North Wilkesboro. On a cold, rainy Monday in December, Buescher didn’t tell Earnhardt he was coming, he just arrived after seeing a post on social media, thinking it was a good chance to see the place first. that it does not disappear forever. The gesture has not been forgotten.
“(Buescher) just showed up with his own shit,” Earnhardt said. “He came over, got weed killer and fuel out of his truck and got to work. You never would have known he was here if you hadn’t seen him.
Thinking about the cleanup project, Earnhardt shook his head. Some of the things they found that day were unforgettable – like the grim-looking old care center in the infield that featured used stretchers, an empty and dirty fridge, graffiti on the walls and no working light.
“Oh man, that was awful,” Earnhardt said. “It was a scene from a horror movie.”
The care center has since been transformed into a brightly lit media center that looks nothing like it used to.
“This room here was terrifying. I mean, post-apocalyptic,” Buescher said. “It was disgusting. Stuff everywhere. It was crazy, and to see what it is today, it’s amazing.
What North Wilkesboro was then compared to what it is today is remarkable. And much of the credit goes to Earnhardt. Yet he repeatedly downplays his role, noting that Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, the track owner, and the local community should be commended for their contributions.
But those in attendance on Sunday night made it clear who they think should receive the majority of accolades.
As Earnhardt rode a golf cart from victory lane, located inside the infield, to the suites on the outside of Turn 4, he passed a crowd of fans lined up on either side of the way, some shouting, “Thank you, Dale!” Later, as he sat in the suite, fans would look up at Earnhardt through the glass, wave for his attention, and then say, “Thank you.” Every time he smiled back, he was waving or giving a thumbs up.
And it wasn’t just fans who expressed their gratitude.
During pre-race ceremonies, Kyle Busch thanked Earnhardt for the PA system, prompting Earnhardt to respond, “That was good.” Former driver-turned-TV analyst Phil Parsons, whose older brother Benny had long pushed for NASCAR’s return, made it a point to personally thank Earnhardt when he pulled over in the aftermath. “It wouldn’t have happened without you,” Parsons said. “You did it.” And country musician Tim Dugger, seated next to Earnhardt, encouraged his good friend to do everything possible to get NASCAR back on the Nashville Fairgrounds short track.
“There are a lot of people that you could say it wouldn’t be possible for us to be here today if it wasn’t for such and such, and there are really many, many people. Dale Jr. is a critical part of that,” Smith said. “If he hadn’t had the passion and the history of the sport, then you wouldn’t have the momentum to keep believing in it.
“I mean, he’s the Pied Piper of NASCAR fans around the world, and I think his support was the kerosene to make this happen.”
Unfortunately, all the excitement surrounding North Wilkesboro’s homecoming from NASCAR didn’t translate into much excitement at the All-Star Race. There would be no magical conclusion befitting the good vibes leading up to the highly anticipated event. Larson ran away with the win, the ending no doubt as the caution needed to keep things interesting never happened.
Earnhardt stayed for the duration, watching the 200 laps. And as it became clear that Larson would ride to victory, he hoped, like so many others, that something would happen to cause a jolt. The necessary caution came closest to happening when Brad Keselowski came up in turn 3, almost touching the wall.
“Close,” Earnhardt said, shaking his head. “…These guys are too nice.”
“You can’t do much when a guy is so strong, he walks off the pitch like that,” Earnhardt added. “It should be celebrated. He smoked them.
That the race itself ended up being largely forgettable mattered little. The NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro made the evening a success. A sport so often fractured by divergent interests has come together in support of its return, and now it’s likely that North Wilkesboro will have a place on the 2024 Cup Series schedule – whether for the All-Star Race or a race at the points remains to be determined.
In whatever form NASCAR will then return to North Wilkesboro, it certainly won’t be another 26 years between visits.
“Hopefully we keep coming back so North Wilkesboro can have another new chapter and it won’t just be a one-off,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully this is a whole new lifeline for this place.”
(Photo: Jordan Bianchi/ Athleticism)