NASCAR drivers facing unfamiliar venue with All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. (AP) — William Byron has driven past North Wilkesboro Speedway on his way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. So has Brad Keselowski and many other North Carolina-based NASCAR drivers.
Like most, they'd never been inside the track before this week. And none of the drivers on the NASCAR circuit have raced a Cup Series car here.
That should make the All-Star race on Sunday night at the restored .625-mile track all the more interesting — and unpredictable — when 24 drivers vie for a $1 million first-place prize at the refurbished track.
“I’m not gonna speculate on what type of racing that we’re gonna see,” Kevin Harvick said. ”... When you start speculating on something that’s never happened, you’re just asking for nothing but trouble. It’s going to be fun, but I don’t know what that means as far as how the race is going to be.”
The last time the track hosted a Cup Series race was in 1996 when Jeff Gordon won.
It has sat mostly dormant and unused for the better part of 27 years until Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith spearheaded an effort to bring it back to life for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Some drivers have tried to get a feel for the track using a simulator leading up to this weekend, and others came earlier in the week to race late-model cars just to get in a few laps.
The practice session on Friday left some to speculate the lack of grip on the track could make it difficult to pass. Others said it could lead to more spinouts.
Despite racing on a asphalt track that hasn't been paved in more than three decades and had weeds growing up through the cracks four years ago, drivers are embracing the great unknown.
The track has already been patched in several areas and could receive more patchwork during breaks in the race, if pieces start coming up.
“I like the fact that they didn’t repave it and they wanted to get at least one race on the original surface," Keselowski said. "I certainly respect it and I think there’s an industry expectation that it’s probably not gonna go off without a flaw. There will probably be something, but I think there’s some tolerance for that being that this is an All-Star event, an exhibition race and how hard the industry has pulled together to try to get this track back to life. We’ll deal with it as it comes.”
Byron said racing on Sunday night will feel a little like stepping back in time.
“It makes me a fan again of what we do. I just think that’s cool versus going to … no offense, Kansas or somewhere,” Byron said.
Given there are no assurances that racing will return to North Wilkesboro, Keselowski said this will be “a big race to win" for bragging rights.
“It's a chance to put your name on a track that has defeated death in a lot of ways,” Keselowski said. "I think that’s gonna carry a lot of weight and prestige.”
HARVICK RETURNS TO 29 CAR
It will be an emotional Sunday night for Harvick, who'll run his final All-Star race in the No. 29 car with his old white Busch Light paint scheme.
After Dale Earnhardt’s death at the Daytona 500 in 2001, Harvick took over Earnhardt’s role for owner Richard Childress Racing, who changed the car number from the iconic No. 3 to 29. Harvick went to win later that year at Atlanta, en route to a standout career that will come to an end when he retires after this season.
“Dale’s passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took," said Harvick, who normally races the No. 4 car for Stewart Haas-Racing. “Looking back on it now, I realize the importance of getting in that car.”
Harvick pushed to ride the No. 29 car one more time and thanked SHR and RCR for agreeing to make it happen.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to drive it one last time,” Harvick said.
Corey LaJoie is one of the few drivers who has visited North Wilkesboro Speedway, sneaking into the track in 2018 for some engagement photos with his then-fiance, Kelly.
He admitted that took some “persuading” to convince her to come to an old, abandoned track for pictures.
“It’s got to have the right lighting and the whole thing,” LaJoie said. “It had to fit the look that my wife wanted."
Getting into the track proved to be more difficult.
LaJoie arranged for the shoot, but when he got to the track he was greeted by “a grumpy guy out front in the trailer with a chocolate lab," who apparently hadn't been informed of the event.
"I rolled up and he was not too impressed that some people showed up with a makeup artist, a photographer and some people who were done up in nice clothes," LaJoie said. “So I had to call Marcus (Smith) up and say, ‘No, no… I promise. I’m allowed to be here.’”
ALL STAR RULES:
As usual, the 200-lap All-Star race will have a unique format.
Twenty-one drivers have already qualified for the All-Star race by virtue of their past achievements, while two others will advance through Sunday's All-Star Open and a third through the fan vote.
Alex Bowman will not race due to an injury.
ODDS AND ENDS
Kyle Larson, who had the fastest lap at practice on Friday, is the favorite to win the All-Star race at 7-1 odds, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. He's followed closely by William Byron, last week's winner at Darlington Raceway, and Harvick at 15-2.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports