Race Weekend Central

Dropping The Hammer: North Wilkesboro Dreams Become Reality

And just like that, it’s North Wilkesboro week.

Yes, thanks to this weekend’s All-Star Race, the center of the NASCAR universe once again revolves around the 0.625-mile short track in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

How long has it been since NASCAR ventured to one of its original tracks in an official capacity?

The last race there was held on Sept. 29, 1996, 27 years ago.

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What else was going on back then?

President Bill Clinton was still in his first term of office.

A little song called “The Macarena” was in its 10th week atop the Billboard Hot 100.

Those were the days when 34 million people could be expected to tune in to watch an episode of “ER” each week.

It was a very different era.

At the time that Jeff Gordon won the final Tyson Holly Farms 400, I was five years old.

I have no personal connection to North Wilkesboro Speedway.

I couldn’t tell you if my dad and I watched the ESPN broadcast of that final race.

Even though I lived in the Charlotte area twice for four and a half years, I never went out of my way to drive the roughly 90 minutes to get a glimpse of the track.

I honestly never yearned for its return.

To me, North Wilkesboro represented a pipe dream that many naively thought was possible.

Then, in 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the charge to have the track scanned for iRacing.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

Then the ensuing eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series gave us a taste of what modern NASCAR could look like at a revitalized North Wilkesboro.

Next came $18 million from the American Rescue Plan.

And so on and so forth.

All of it, including the successful CARS Tour race held there last summer, resulted in a pipe dream becoming a tangible one.

When I watched that CARS Tour race, featuring my favorite driver in Dale Jr., I was insanely jealous of all my NASCAR friends and fellow journalists who got to attend.

While not a NASCAR event, the night looked like pure, unadulterated NASCAR at its peak.

Imagine what the real deal will feel like?

We’ll get to find out Sunday, May 21.

While the track only seats 25,000 people — down from the roughly 40,000 it seated in the ’90s — Sunday’s race is likely to be one where the number of people who claimed to be there grows with each passing year.

It will undoubtably be a madhouse, unlike anything we’ve experienced in NASCAR in years.

The track isn’t the only throwback we’re getting this week.

Soon-to-be-retired Kevin Harvick will once again drive the No. 29, gracing the track in the same paint scheme he won his first NASCAR Cup Series race with back in 2001.

Harvick has experienced just about everything you could in a NASCAR career that’s spanned more than 25 years.

The 47-year-old can actually say he’s driven on the track. He tested there in 2010 with Richard Childress Racing, when testing was still allowed.

It feels somewhat appropriate that Harvick, the last full-time Cup driver to compete under the Winston Cup banner, will be part of the sport’s return to the historic track.

“I don’t know the last time the All-Star Race was the most anticipated event of the season,” Harvick said. “To be able to go back to North Wilkesboro is special, because it’s something that I’d never thought would happen because I really thought it was just a dream that was too big for a group of people who were working hard on a project to revive the racetrack.

“And here we are about ready to run the All-Star Race there in the Cup Series, so kudos to that group of people for digging their heels in and continuing to work to keep North Wilkesboro alive.”

Harvick is very aware Sunday night will be a surreal one, for all involved.

“Going back in time and doing everything that weekend in the 29 car is something I’m really excited about,” Harvick said. “I think when you go out on the racetrack, the fans will be in the same boat. As you go by the first time, people are going to be like, ‘I can’t believe that actually happened.’”

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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DoninAjax

It’s a one-and-done Cup event.

Shayne

But, but, Jr. said….

DoninAjax

….what NA$CAR says he can but NA$CAR also said their latest contraption would solve the “racing” problems and the result has been predictable.

Mack

I leave for Wilkes tomorrow night and this is my first race in years. I am not expecting great racing however it will be a bonus if it is. I am mainly going for the nostalgia, seeing old friends and hopefully go back in time even if it’s for a couple of days. I don’t know what the future holds however I have lobbied for Wilkes to be back for decades so I was glad to put out my money for something I have been asking for.
I expect major traffic delays and a few other hiccups like the track coming apart like it did yesterday so we’re just going to make an experience out of it.

Alex Curtis

I tried to watch on Flo, but the announcers are loud mouth idiots getting paid per word. During qualifying you learn everything about the driver and team except for the drivers NAME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t need to know that his cousins uncles mother used to sell flip flops made from Skoals cans at the track, but the drivers name may be nice.

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