Dale Earnhardt Jr. gearing up to race at North Wilkesboro

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among the thousands of excited fans who gathered at North Wilkesboro Speedway in the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina Aug. 2 as one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks returned to life.

Like so many others, Earnhardt had to see it to believe it.

Mostly idle since the NASCAR Cup Series departed in 1996 and presenting the appearance of a roadside slum during many of the years that followed, North Wilkesboro Speedway was being born again, against all odds.

The .625-mile track with the odd one-goes-uphill, one-goes-downhill straightaways is that rare animal – a speedway revived after being left to rot. Dreamers near other defunct racetracks across the land have sought this sort of revival; at North Wilkesboro, it actually happened.

And it was no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at its center, both on opening night Aug. 2 and in the months and years that preceded it.

“It was fascinating,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “I thought for sure it was gone forever. And here we are.”

The next step for Earnhardt, after putting time, encouragement and leadership into the revival movement at North Wilkesboro, is to race there. He’s scheduled to compete in the CARS Tour Late Model Stock race Wednesday.

“I’m nervous about going there and knowing whether we can compete, but it really doesn’t matter in the end,” Earnhardt said. “I just want to cross the finish line and drink a cold beer.”

The evening is likely to be drenched in emotion for Earnhardt. His No. 3 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Sun Drop soft drink, a beverage with long ties to the Earnhardt family. Sun Drop initially was a sponsor for Dale Earnhardt Sr.

A teenage Earnhardt Jr. was driving late models for car owner Gary Hargett, one of the men most responsible for Junior’s early career development, when money ran low.

“One week Gary came to me and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I’m behind, borrowed too much money,’ ” Earnhardt said. “Then we got the deal with Sun Drop and saved the season.”

It isn’t likely that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have let his son’s racing career fade because of money issues, but the infusion of cash at that moment marked a turning point on Junior’s path to the big leagues of racing.

Ironically, while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series, Junior carried sponsorship from Mountain Dew, a rival of Sun Drop in the citrus-flavored soda wars.

“I had Mountain Dew on the side of my cars for years, and I did my best to represent them well,” Earnhardt said, “but Sun Drop has been in my veins since I was a little boy. My mammaw made pound cakes using Sun Drop. They were in my daddy’s refrigerator.”

Drink up.

Unless weather poses a problem, the Aug. 31 crowd at North Wilkesboro probably will match or exceed the estimated 9,000 who turned out for the first night of racing Aug. 2. Watching an Earnhardt compete on hallowed racing ground that almost became a figurative cemetery will be too tempting for many fans to resist. Dale Sr. won five Cup races there.

Although community leaders in and around North Wilkesboro had been trying to give the old track life for years, a big step forward was taken in 2019 when Earnhardt Jr. led an effort to scan the track for iRacing computer competition. In December of that year, Earnhardt, several other drivers, workers from Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway and area residents cleaned the facility in preparation for the iRacing crew.

“I had come to the realization that North Wilkesboro was lost forever, that the track and property would never find any purpose,” Earnhardt said. “So we asked Marcus (Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the property) if we could scan it for iRacing. It was in decent enough shape that we could scan it, but we had to clean it up.”

Smith agreed and joined the cleanup crew.

“We did that, and that was the last box to check before the place was going to slowly disappear,” Earnhardt said. “I’m extremely passionate about iRacing, and that was a way for the track to live in a virtual sense. That created a lot of conversation around the track, and I think Marcus realized in that moment that there were a lot more people interested than was thought. He told me, ‘I need to take this seriously. There’s something here.’

“When he saw what we were doing and saw the response, it just triggered something in him.”

The effort to restore the track got a major boost in 2021. Using money from the American Rescue Plan Act (passed as a response to the COVID pandemic), the state of North Carolina allocated funds for major improvements at the track, paving the way for this summer’s reopening.

There is hope in the communities around the speedway – and in some parts of the NASCAR world at large – that the track eventually could host a national-level race, perhaps in the Camping World Truck Series. But much remains to be done if that is to become a reality.

“I think people should really appreciate all the effort that’s going into having the races there because nobody is making any money,” Earnhardt said. “It’s all for the fans and the love of the track. Everybody needs to go into it with the idea that it’s all about the experience.”

 

 

 

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.