NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — As Kyle Larson found himself ensnared 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 intensified. Uncrossing his legs and leaning forward, Earnhardt seemingly sensed something was about to happen during Sunday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
His intuition proved correct. Jones tagged Gibbs, pushing him up the track and creating an opening that allowed Larson to split Jones and Berry as the four cars bounced off one another.
Just like that, Earnhardt elicited an audible, “Oh, three‐wide! Good grief” while pointing and waving his finger at the pack of cars on the 5/8ths-of-a-mile short track. Then once things settled down, he leaned back in his seat and relaxed.
“I’m looking for battles and contact,” Earnhardt said. “Who’s getting pissed at whom.”
So it goes when you watch a NASCAR race with Earnhardt. Watching a race with him is like watching a race with a good buddy at a bar. Expect plenty of “Ohs” and “Ahs” mixed with a running commentary of what’s transpiring on the track and plenty of anecdotes about his experiences in a sport to which the 48‐year‐old has forever been tied.
On this night, these stories centered around prior visits to North Wilkesboro, the venerable track located in rural North Carolina that Earnhardt played a prominent role in revitalizing. Like the time as a teenager when he and some friends played a practical joke on Davey Allison, then one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, that involved hiding Allison’s jacket while he was in the restroom. Another was about NASCAR star Ernie Irvan gifting Earnhardt a remote-controlled car he had built. Then there was a fond memory he had from when he was a young boy and first came here to watch his dad race.
“This place is special to me,” he said. “It’s special to a lot of people.”
Earnhardt sitting at North Wilkesboro watching the All-Star Race would’ve been unfathomable not too long ago. Sunday night marked the first time NASCAR had visited since 1996. And had Earnhardt not initiated the effort to clean up the track in December 2019 so that it could be preserved digitally, it’s very possible that North Wilkesboro would’ve remained shuttered — an abandoned, dilapidated track with no pathway to modern relevance.
But North Wilkesboro isn’t just another track to Earnhardt. This one holds special meaning because North Wilkesboro represents the fabric of the sport, having been on the first premier series schedule in 1949 and then every year up until it closed when its owners jettisoned it in favor of newer, fancier venues in bigger markets.
Hence, as Earnhardt sat sipping a Busch Light prior to 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 in large part from government funding made available following the COVID-19 pandemic to stimulate the economy. The restoration allowed North Wilkesboro to make a somewhat improbable comeback, culminating this week with the track hosting the regional CARS Tour and ASA series Tuesday and Wednesday, then the Cup and Truck Series on the weekend. Each race happened before a spirited packed crowd that included Earnhardt, who until Tuesday hadn’t seen the fully renovated North Wilkesboro because he wanted his first glimpse to come when he attended a race.
“I was just patiently waiting for the time that I’d be able to come in and sit in the chair and crack a beer open and watch some racing,” Earnhardt said. “And I knew at that moment, looking around at everybody else that was like-minded like me at that moment, of just how insane this is. The energy and the emotion about it are unique.
“I can’t believe it. Sitting here watching this doesn’t feel real; all this feels very surreal.”
Top 5, North Wilkesboro: Breaking down NASCAR’s All-Star Race weekend
As Earnhardt spoke, the field completed its pace laps. Asked who his pick to win was, he tabbed polesitter Daniel Suárez, who had run well in preliminary races earlier in the week. Another driver cited was Chris Buescher, who went wire-to-wire in winning his heat race on Saturday night.
“His shit is on a rail,” Earnhardt noted.
That Earnhardt mentioned Buescher is appropriate considering 42 months ago the RFK Racing driver was part of a group of volunteers that showed up with Earnhardt to assist in cleaning up North Wilkesboro. On that rainy, cold Monday in December Buescher didn’t tell Earnhardt he was coming, he just arrived after seeing a social media post, figuring it was a good chance to see the place before it was gone forever. The gesture hasn’t been forgotten.
“(Buescher) just showed up with his own shit,” Earnhardt said. “He came, pulled a weed‐eater and fuel out of his truck and just went to work. You would’ve never 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 former care center in the infield that featured used gurneys, an empty, dirty fridge, graffiti on the walls and no working lights.
“Oh man, that was horrifying,” Earnhardt said. “That was a scene from a horror movie.”
The care center has since been remodeled into a brightly lit media center that bears no resemblance to what it used to be.
“This room right here was terrifying. I mean, post-apocalyptic,” Buescher said. “It was disgusting. Stuff all over the place. It was insane, and to see what it is today it’s amazing.”
What North Wilkesboro was then compared to what it is now is remarkable. And a lot of the credit deservedly goes to Earnhardt. Yet, he repeatedly downplays his role, noting Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, the track’s owner, and the local community should be lauded for their contributions.
But those in attendance Sunday night made it clear who they think should get the majority of the accolades.
As Earnhardt rode on a golf cart from victory lane, located inside the infield, to the suites outside Turn 4, he rolled past a throng of fans lining each side of the path, some shouting, “Thank you, Dale!” Later as he sat in the suite, fans would look up at Earnhardt through the pane of glass, wave to get his attention, then mouth, “Thank you.” Each time he smiled back then either waved or offered a thumbs up.
And it wasn’t just fans expressing their gratitude.
During pre‐race ceremonies, Kyle Busch thanked Earnhardt over the public address system, prompting Earnhardt to respond, “That was nice.” Former driver turned television analyst Phil Parsons, whose older brother Benny had long pushed for NASCAR to return, made it a point to personally thank Earnhardt when he stopped by the suite. “Wouldn’t have happened without you,” Parsons said. “You did this.” And country musician Tim Dugger, sitting next to Earnhardt, encouraged his good friend to put his weight behind getting NASCAR to return to 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 weren’t for so and so, and there truly are many, many people. Dale Jr. is a critical part of that,” Smith said. “If he hadn’t had the passion and the history for the sport, then you wouldn’t have the momentum to continue kind of believing.
“I mean, he’s the pied piper of NASCAR fans around the world, and I think his support was the jet fuel to make this happen.”
Unfortunately, all the excitement surrounding NASCAR’s North Wilkesboro homecoming didn’t translate to much excitement during the All-Star Race. There would be no magical conclusion befitting the good vibes leading into the hotly anticipated event. Larson ran away with the win, the ending never in doubt as the caution needed to keep things interesting never occurred.
Earnhardt stayed for the duration, watching all 200 laps. And as it became clear that Larson would steamroll to victory, he, like so many, hoped something would happen to provide a jolt. The closest the needed caution came to happening was when Brad Keselowski got high entering Turn 3, nearly hitting the wall.
“Close,” Earnhardt said, shaking his head. “… These guys are too nice.”
“Not much you can do when a guy is so strong, he drives away from the field like that,” Earnhardt added. “That should be celebrated. He smoked ‘em.”
That the race itself ended up being largely forgettable was of little consequence. Just NASCAR racing again at North Wilkesboro made the night a success. A sport so often fractured by diverging interests came together in supporting its return, and now it’s likely North Wilkesboro will have a place on the 2024 Cup Series schedule — whether that’s for the All-Star Race or a points race is still to be determined.
In whatever form NASCAR next returns 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 this won’t just be a one-of-one,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, it’s a whole new lifeline to this place.”
(Photo: Jordan Bianchi / The Athletic)