August 31, 2022: Carson Kvapil celebrates in Victory Lane at North Wilksboro Speedway in North Wilksboro, NC. (HHP/Harold Hinson)
August 31, 2022: Carson Kvapil celebrates in Victory Lane at North Wilksboro Speedway in North Wilksboro, NC. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

A Late Model Stock Car Renaissance

When the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour announced that the quartet of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks had purchased the series, it was viewed by many as the dawning of a new era in short-track racing.

However, in many ways the announcement was also a capstone on the growing interest in asphalt short-track racing, particularly in the late model stock discipline, over the last handful of seasons.

“Short-track racing truly is the foundation of stock car racing in America and if the short-track scene is strong, if the grassroots scene is strong, everybody can benefit,” Marks said in the video introducing the new ownership group.

Indeed, late model stock racing has grown stronger in recent years, with the addition of more big-money shows featuring large car counts, an influx of young drivers intent on proving themselves against grizzled veterans, and perhaps more crossover than ever with NASCAR’s national series.

Valleystar Credit Union 300 Race Finish
Late model stocks head down the frontstretch at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. (NASCAR photo)

The CARS Tour provides a premier touring option for the Southeast-based vehicles, while a wide range of both NASCAR-sanctioned and independent tracks in the region count the class atop their weekly marquee.

Undoubtedly, some of the recent interest in late model stock cars can be attributed to Earnhardt, who helped the CARS Tour event at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway attract a capacity crowd last August. He also competed in the NASCAR-sanctioned South Carolina 400 at Florence Motor Speedway in November in front of another packed house.

Even a half-decade after his retirement, as Earnhardt goes, so go the fans.

In addition, Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team has fielded late model stock entries in both the CARS Tour and the NASCAR weekly series for years with great success.

NASCAR Xfinity Series star Josh Berry won both the 2017 CARS Tour late model stock championship and the 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national title with the team.

Last season, Carson Kvapil — son of 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil — drove the JR Motorsports entry to the CARS Tour late model stock title.

But the Earnhardt effect notwithstanding, for many, the old-school nature of late model stock racing is its primary appeal. That facet of the discipline simply fits Earnhardt and his partners perfectly. It’s also attractive to both short-track enthusiasts and competitors.

“That’s a tool that we used to try to help grow the CARS Tour, to make sure that we kept that old-school racing and the values all intact,” said Keeley Dubensky, the CARS Tour director of operations who has been with the series since 2019.

The CARS Tour was founded by Jack McNelly for the 2015 season, utilizing the remnants of the USAR Pro Cup Series. In Pro Cup’s Hooters-backed glory days during the late 1990s and 2000s, the series received weekly national attention and just qualifying for each race was an accomplishment.

In 2015, the CARS Tour replaced Pro Cup with a late model stock and super late model division. For the 2022 campaign, a pro late model class took the place of the supers.

Dubensky uses stories from the Hooters Pro Cup days as a guideline for the CARS Tour, while also acknowledging modern tools such as streaming broadcasts and social media have helped broaden the appeal of the organization based in Mooresville, N.C.

Late model stocks are almost exclusively run in the Carolinas, Virginia and east Tennessee, yet the discipline has reached fans across the country.

Both the CARS Tour and weekly late model stock racing have helped propel drivers such as Berry, Ty Gibbs, Sam Mayer, Tyler Ankrum and others to the national stage. Meanwhile, young stars the likes of Kvapil, Kaden Honeycutt, Layne Riggs and William Sawalich are among the most recent crop of drivers who have garnered national attention.