Friday 5: North Wilkesboro Speedway’s return reinvigorates community

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NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Brian Call would shake his head when he’d leave his home on Speedway Road and look at the decaying race track that was a short walk up the hill. 

What once was a personal playground that Call shared with NASCAR fans, served as a reminder the last quarter century to a past long gone. North Wilkesboro Speedway became more synonymous with the economic struggles of Wilkes County than racing duels that featured Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and local favorite Junior Johnson.

The track’s rebirth last month reinvigorated special memories for Call and others located along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Now when I look (at the track),” he said, “I’ve always got a smile on my face.”

Thursday’s “mind-boggling” announcement that the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race will be held at the historic track left Call shaking his head in wonder. So happy and so surprised.

There are many like Call, the owner of the Call Family Distillery, who were raised in Wilkes County. Some who left later returned. The track they knew sat vacant. Jobs went away. Lowe’s moved its headquarters from Wilkes County. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway remains special here because it was among the main gathering spots for the community. Memories were created. With no new experiences at the track to replace them, those memories endured.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool. While other tracks left behind might have had just as special memories, they didn’t have the advocates North Wilkesboro Speedway did. Enough voices kept the memory of the speedway alive even as part of the track fell into disrepair.

Brian Call (Photo: Dustin Long)

Among Call’s fondest memories of the track was qualifying day. His father would get him out of school on those Fridays and take him to the track. Call went to the track enough and knew the right people that he was allowed in the gate without paying at times. 

Such experiences were lost to a generation. Call’s three children were born after the track hosted its last Cup race in September 1996. 

Racing returned to North Wilkesboro in  2010-11 — a 14-year-old Chase Elliott won a race there in September 2010 — but the track went quiet in April 2011. It sat dormant until Dec. 2019 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a part of group that included Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith that cleaned the track so it could be scanned for iRacing and preserved. 

That set in motion a series of events that led to the return of racing there last month and to Thursday’s announcement. 

Shore Goforth, whose family owns the Hallmark store on Main Street in North Wilkesboro, was 5 years old when the track hosted its last Cup race. 

He had not been to the track to see a race in his life until the Aug. 31 CARS Tour race that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr. and drew an estimated 18,000 fans. Goforth went with his uncle, a cousin and some friends. They sat in the seats his uncle had for the NASCAR races in the 1990s. 

“It was something I’ll remember forever,” Goforth said of that night. “It was probably the most people I’ve ever seen in one single event in Wilkes County.”

Earnhardt’s eyes glow when he talks about that night and that crowd. Such love for a track combined with the fact fans saw something they never thought they would see again at this speedway.

It’s an experience that Earnhardt knows will be hard to feel again, although the return of NASCAR there next year could match the intensity and emotion. 

Dean Combs said he had tears watching last month’s racing.

Combs can look out his home and up the hill to see Turns 3 and 4 beyond his backyard. The 70-year-old said his family moved into the home when he was a few days old. He’s never left. His father once was a part owner of the track.

Dean Combs (Photo: Dustin Long)

When Combs was younger, he served as the track’s unofficial security guard. He would stay in a suite at night and watch over the property. He was given a .22 caliber gun. 

He fired it once.

“I hollered at him and he almost crossed the track, and I finally said, ‘I’m going to have to shoot you,’” Combs told a trespasser one night. “I shot in the air. He didn’t know I was a little kid.”

Combs later raced in NASCAR, winning five championships in what became the Goody’s Dash Series. He competed in three Cup races at North Wilkesboro. 

Standing just inside his garage, his grandson’s race car behind him, Combs looked out to the track and his voice quivered when he recalled the large crowd at the track last month.

“Just seeing the people,” he paused, “the interest,” he paused again. “A lot of people you hadn’t met in a long while. I’d guess you’d say it’s just a blessing it come back.”

But it’s so much more to the community. Andrew Palmer, a North Wilkesboro commissioner, looks at the new memories the track can create.

“With the (races) leaving, and then a few years later Lowe’s corporate headquarters left here … those were hard blows for the  community to deal with,” Palmer said. “I feel like the race track coming back, it’s like a renewed sense of hope and civic pride that I feel like I haven’t seen in a long time. 

“It’s really exciting to me. It’s personally lifted me up. I know a lot of people feel that way. It feels like your town is relevant again in some way, your county.

“The races were something that everybody was known for and really proud of. … (Racing back) is breathing life back into our community. People are really excited.”

2. Moving forward

There’s no sense for Chase Elliott to look back on his last-place finish last weekend at Darlington Raceway that dropped him from first to ninth in the playoff standings. 

Elliott’s race ended when he lost control of his car, hit the wall and was hit by Chase Briscoe. 

“I’m disappointed and frustrated with having a really bad result,” Elliott said. “And, ultimately making a mistake that cost us a solid day. Of course, I’m disappointed in that. So that’s not to say that I don’t care, but I certainly recognize in those instances where you have something like that happen, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it after the fact.

“As much as I would love to go back and change things and get a retry, that’s just not how it works.”

Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) is the second event in the opening round of the playoffs. The round ends next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Elliott is 14 points ahead of Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, the first driver outside a transfer spot. 

Asked if last weekend’s result was made any easier because of the issues other playoff drivers had in the Southern 500, Elliott said: “Honestly, I really don’t care about other guys, and I’m certainly not going to get excited about other people’s misfortune. 

“That’s not how I operate and how our team operates. So no, I am disappointed and certainly our team is just frustrated and disappointed that we had a bad day.We we didn’t do a good job controlling the things that we can control and that, to me, is where our focus is and where it should be.”

3. Toyota dominance?

The biggest challenge for drivers in Sunday’s Cup race could be beating the Toyotas.

Five of the top six spots in the May race at Kansas were Toyotas, led by Kurt Busch, who scored his only win of the season. Busch will miss his eighth consecutive race this weekend. He continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a crash in qualifying at Pocono in July.

Among the Toyotas in the May race, Kyle Busch was third, Denny Hamlin placed fourth, Christopher Bell was fifth and Martin Truex Jr. was sixth. Bubba Wallace placed 10th despite two penalties by his pit crew. 

Kyle Larson was the only non-Toyota driver in the top six in May and expects to face similar challenges this weekend.

“I feel like Kansas was one of the first races where they really stood out as being extremely good,” Larson said of the Toyotas. “And I would say nothing has changed since then, if not gotten even more in their direction on the intermediate style tracks. 

“They’ve been super good the majority of the season on that style of track, and I don’t foresee this weekend being any different. I think all of the Toyota’s will be the ones to beat, and it will be up to other teams to just execute as good as they can and win that way.”

What has made Toyotas so good on such tracks?

“I think just their overall speed and grip,” Larson said. “As much as I feel like I hear them complain about dirty air, being effected by that, I feel like they are twice as good as any of the other manufacturers in traffic. 

“They are just able to put their cars in different situations that I feel like I can’t do as well. I don’t know where the advantage comes from, but me racing with them, I feel like it’s more of an aero advantage.” 

4. Impresses Dale Jr.

Noah Gragson comes into Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network) after winning last weekend at Darlington. It is his fourth victory of the season. 

Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said one of the things that has stood out the most to him about Gragson is what Gragson has done off the track.

“One of the things about Noah that I think kind of gets unnoticed is that he came in here and he definitely had some support from his family, but he went and made himself recognizable and created a persona (that is) marketable,” Earnhardt said.

“We had a partnership with Bass Pro Shops, and they fell in love with him. He did that. We didn’t do that. He did that by what he does, being himself. They love it, the more crazy that he can be, they love it. Whether intentional or not, he has developed this path that’s in front of him.

“He deserves a lot of credit because he enjoys being himself and it’s great for business. It’s good for NASCAR. They should seize on it. I think he’s one of the more recognizable, popular, unique, fun guys in the industry. 

“So if he can find some kind of success in the Cup level, he will be a great asset to NASCAR because of what he’s willing to do and he’s willing to get attention and he has fun. As long as he can stay on the right path emotionally and make good decisions, he’s got a really great opportunity in front of him that he created.

“I’m pretty impressed by the ability that he has to get these sponsors that he gets connected to to get behind him. I really like what he does and fans are digging it. He’s got a lot of people that might not love him, but all the good drivers had people that definitely hated them. You’re never gonna have the whole crowd behind you, but he certainly got some people that love to see him do well and support him.”

5. Truck cutoff playoff race

The Truck playoffs started in late July and the first round comes to an end Friday night at Kansas Speedway.

Grant Enfinger (Indianapolis Raceway Park) and Chandler Smith (Richmond) have each advanced to the second round via wins. 

That leaves eight drivers vying for the final six spots to the second round. 

Matt Crafton holds the final transfer position. He leads Carson Hocevar by three points and Christian Eckes by six points going into the race. 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

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.