NORTH WILMESBORO, NC — When Kyle Larson found himself locked in a skirmish with Josh Berry, Ty Gibbs and Eric Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. watched from the wing in turn four, shifting in his seat as the action intensified. Unbending 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 hunch proved correct. Jones tagged Gibbs, pushing him up the track and creating an opening that allowed Larson to split Jones and Perry as the four cars bounced into each other.
Just like that, Earnhardt let out an audible, “Oh, show three! Good grief” while pointing and waving his finger at the group of cars on the short 5/8 of a mile track. Then once things settled down, he leaned back in his seat and relaxed.
“I’m looking for fights and connections,” said Earnhardt. “Who gets angry at whom?”
That’s how it goes when you watch a NASCAR race with Earnhardt. Watching a race with him is like watching a race with a good friend in a pub. Expect plenty of “Ohs” and “Ahs” mixed with running commentary of what’s happening on the track and plenty of anecdotes about his experiences in a sport the 48-year-old has been forever associated with.
Tonight, those stories center around past visits to North Wilkesboro, the venerable trail in rural North Carolina that Earnhardt played a prominent role in revitalizing. Like the time as a teenager when he and some friends were playing a practical joke on Davey Allison, then one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, which involved hiding Allison’s jacket while he was in the shower. Another was about NASCAR star Ernie Irvan gifting Earnhardt a remote-controlled car he had built. Then there was a fond memory he had of being a little boy and first coming here to watch his dad race.
“This place is special to me,” he said. “It’s a private matter for a lot of people.”
Earnhardt sitting in North Wilkesboro watching the All-Star Race would have been unfathomable not so long ago. Sunday night was the first time NASCAR had visited since 1996. Had Earnhardt not begun efforts to clean up the track in December 2019 so it could be preserved digitally, it is very likely that North Wilkesboro would still be a closed—a deserted, dilapidated track with no track of its modern significance.
But North Wilkesboro isn’t just another Earnhardt trail. This one holds special meaning because North Wilkesboro represents the fabric of the sport, having been on the first series table in 1949 and then every year until it closed when its owners abandoned it in favor of newer, more luxurious venues in larger markets.
Hence, as Earnhardt sat sipping a Busch Light before the race, he couldn’t help but think about how far the track had come in such a short time.
Over the past year, the track has undergone a massive facelift with millions of dollars in much government funding made available in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to stimulate the economy. The restoration has allowed North Wilkesboro a somewhat improbable comeback, culminating this week in hosting the CARS Tour Regional Track and ASA Series on Tuesday and Wednesday, then the Cup and Truck Series Championship the weekend. Each race took place before a spirited crowd that included Earnhardt, who didn’t see until Tuesday the completely renovated North Wilkesboro because he wanted his first glimpse to come when he attended the race.
“I was anxiously awaiting the time when I would be able to come in and sit in the chair and crack a beer and watch some racing,” said Earnhardt. And I knew in that moment, looking around at everyone else who was like-minded like me at that moment, how crazy that was. The energy and passion around it is so unique.
“I can’t believe it. Sitting here and watching this doesn’t feel real; it all feels so surreal.”
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As Earnhardt spoke, the field completed his pace laps. When asked about his pick to win, he switched Daniel Suarez, who had run well in the preliminary races earlier in the week. Another driver cited is Chris Boescher, who went wire to wire in winning Saturday night’s heat race.
“His bullshit is on a rail,” Earnhardt noted.
Earnhardt mentioned that Buescher is fitting given that the RFK Racing driver was part of a group of volunteers who showed up with Earnhardt to help clean up North Wilkesboro 42 months ago. On that cold, rainy Monday in December, Boescher didn’t tell Earnhardt he was coming, he just arrived after seeing a post on social media, and thought it was a good chance to see the place before it was gone forever. This gesture has not been forgotten.
“(Buescher) just showed up with his own shit,” Earnhardt said. “He came in, pulled the weed eater, refueled his truck, and just got to work. You’d never know he was here if you didn’t see him.”
Thinking about the cleaning project, Earnhardt shook his head. Some of the things they found that day were unforgettable – like the bleak-looking former care center on the playing field with used stretchers, a dirty empty fridge, graffiti on the walls and no working lights.
“Man, that was terrifying,” Earnhardt said. “This was a scene from a horror movie.”
Since then, the Care Center has been redesigned into a brightly lit media center unlike anything it used to be.
“This room here was awful. I mean, post-apocalyptic,” Boescher said. “It was disgusting. Stuff everywhere. It was crazy, and seeing what it is like today is amazing.”
What North Wilkesboro has been compared to what it is now is remarkable. Much of the credit deservedly goes to Earnhardt. However, he has repeatedly downplayed his role, noting that Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, the track’s owner, and the local community should be commended for their contributions.
But Sunday night’s attendees made it clear who they think should take home the majority of the prizes.
As Earnhardt rode a golf cart from the victory lane, which is on the inside of the infield, to the pavilions outside of Turn 4, he passed through a crowd of fans lining the road, some of whom shouted, “Thank you, Dale!” Later while he was sitting in the wing, fans would look at Earnhardt through the pane of glass, wave to get his attention, and then mouth, “Thank you.” Every time he smiled, he would either wave or put his thumb up.
And it wasn’t just the fans expressing their gratitude.
During pre-race ceremonies, Kyle Busch thanked Earnhardt for the public address system, prompting Earnhardt to respond, “That was amazing.” Former driver turned TV analyst Phil Parsons, whose older brother Benny has long pushed for a NASCAR comeback, made it a point to personally thank Earnhardt when he stopped by the stand. “It wouldn’t have happened without you,” said Parsons. “You did it.” And country musician Tim Dugger, sitting next to Earnhardt, encouraged his good friend to put his weight behind making NASCAR’s short track return to the Nashville Fairgrounds.
“There are so many people you could say that we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for so-and-so, and there really are many, many people. Dale Jr. is an important part of that,” Smith said. “If he didn’t have the passion and the history for these Sports, you will not have the momentum to continue to believe.
“I mean, he’s a piper for NASCAR fans around the world, and I think his support was the jet fuel to make that happen.”
Unfortunately, all the excitement surrounding North Wilkesboro’s return home in NASCAR didn’t translate into much excitement during the All-Star Race. There will be no magical conclusion befitting the good feelings leading up to the highly anticipated event. Larson escaped with the win, and the finish was never in doubt because the caution needed to keep things interesting never happened.
Earnhardt stayed for the duration, watching all 200 laps. And when it became clear that Larson would cruise to victory, he hoped, like many, that something would happen to make a jolt. The closest the caution called for came when Brad Keselowski went high going into turn three, nearly crashing into the wall.
“Close,” Earnhardt said, shaking his head. “…these guys are so nice.”
“You can’t do much when a guy is so strong, he drives off the field that way,” Earnhardt added. “That should be celebrated. Smoke them.”
That the race itself had ended up largely forgotten was of little consequence. Just another NASCAR race in North Wilkesboro made the night a success. A sport often riven by disparate interests has come together in supporting its comeback, and now it’s possible North Wilkesboro will have a place in the 2024 Cup Series schedule – whether that’s for the All-Star Race or the points race remains to be decided.
In any form of NASCAR’s next return to North Wilkesboro, it wouldn’t be another 26 years between visits.
“Hopefully we’ll keep coming back so North Wilkesboro can have another new chapter and it won’t be just one,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, this will be a brand new lifeline for this place.”
(Photo: Jordan Bianchi/ the athlete)
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