The last time NASCAR Cup Series cars burned rubber at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway in a sanctioned race was on Sept. 29, 1996.
Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon starred in the 400-lap Winston Cup Series race as they battled back and forth on the storied .625-mile track tucked away in the rolling hills of Wilkes County. When the checkered flag waved, it was Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports entry Chevrolet in victory lane.
The long and prominent run the speedway had enjoyed on the NASCAR schedule was brought to an end, as the series was in search of larger facilities with better amenities to help facilitate the sport’s growth. Over the next few decades, the track slowly became a shell of its former glory and remained deserted of NASCAR activity.
Hopes that the series would make a return to the once-revered short track began to dwindle along with it.
But in 2019, sparks began to fly once again.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. instigated the process when he fought for the speedway to be virtually preserved and placed on the iRacing platform.
At that point, some weed whacking and a bit of manual labor was in order to prepare the track for scanning. As the track swiftly gained popularity among the iRacing community over the next year or so, the buzz around North Wilkesboro began to feed real-world ideas of restoring the facility.
In November of 2021, the state of North Carolina designated $18 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for renovations at North Wilkesboro Speedway. And in November of the following year, plans for the track to host the NASCAR All-Star Race during the series’ 75th anniversary season were announced to the public.
On March 21, Cup Series cars made their way home to the small oval.
23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher and Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon partook in a tire test at North Wilkesboro, shattering the silence that has surrounded the speedway in recent years with the roar of the Next Gen car.
“This place has got a lot of age and character to it,” noted Reddick, who was the Toyota representative at the test. “I went out and went right to ripping laps in the car. It doesn’t seem like a track that’s sat for that long.”
While the infield portion of the facility was repaved, the track itself has only experienced cosmetic changes to make it race ready — a decision that Reddick, Buescher and Dillon support.
“Obviously, we’ll reach a point where [the track] could start falling apart,” Reddick said, referring to the idea of repaving. “But I hope we can delay it as much as possible.”
Buescher is the only one of the three drivers who caught a glimpse of the track before any major renovations took place. He was part of the cleanup crew in December of 2019 when the facility was being prepared for the iRacing scan. He even wheeled a pickup truck on the rough surface while he was there.
In comparison, Buescher labels his recent Tuesday spent testing on-track in North Wilkesboro in the Cup Series car “not as bumpy.” The Ford driver added, “Looks a little better now. It’s pretty neat to say we’re out here making these laps and say we’re getting ready for a Cup race again.”
Meanwhile, as the grandson of Richard Childress, Dillon has a thick air of family history encircling him at the speedway. As a former driver and legendary team owner, Childress found considerable success there as a team owner during the 1980s and ’90s.
While Dillon’s nostalgia is certainly a consideration in his eagerness for the All-Star Race on May 21, his focus is primarily set on wheeling the No. 3 Chevrolet Camaro to victory lane and taking home the coveted victory.
Following the tire test, Dillon feels he has a satisfactory understanding of what that will take.
“The real racing here is going to be who can take care of their stuff and be the one at the end,” Dillon said. “It was slick out there, you had to take care of your tires. It wasn’t all about speed today. It was about making the car like the track.”
With the underlying themes attached to North Wilkesboro Speedway and its return to the NASCAR schedule, perhaps the true goal of the entire effort is just that — uniting fans, teams and drivers alike to become one under the lights of the charmed, historic facility.