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 will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.