Dale Earnhardt Jr. Has Gifted NASCAR a Solution to a Lingering Problem

Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped chronicle a great weekend at Darlington by calling Noah Gragson’s victory in the Xfinity Series race followed by Erik Jones’ triumph in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener.

It was an exciting two-day show that deserves to be remembered for a long time. A few days earlier, though, Earnhardt took part in an event that revived memories of bygone days. North Wilkesboro Speedway, all but abandoned for more than a decade, came back to life with a Late Models show.

NASCAR faces some challenges these days when it comes to putting an exciting product on TV, and that North Carolina track might be ready to offer a solution, thanks in no small part to the recent Hall of Fame inductee.

NASCAR’s biggest need is another short track

Dale Earnhardt Jr. spends time with his daughter before the Cars Tour LMSC 125 on Aug. 31, 2022, at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. | David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr. spends time with his daughter before the Cars Tour LMSC 125 on Aug. 31, 2022, at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. | David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NASCAR has broken from its recent policy of announcing the next season’s Cup Series schedule before Labor Day. That likely stems from a desire to keep attention focused on the playoffs, which began last weekend at Darlington. However, it could also signal issues squaring away contracts with tracks.

The only change known for sure is that Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, lost its 2023 date to an event in Chicago, where NASCAR will take its first shot at street racing. There are many tracks across the country, but they all fall under the general heading of ovals or road courses, so Chicago represents an attempt at innovation.

Bristol Motor Speedway (0.533 miles), Martinsville Speedway (0.526), and Richmond Raceway (0.75) are the three short tracks always on the 36-race schedule. Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and Atlanta Motor Speedway fall under the heading of superspeedways. In between are ovals of between a mile and 2.5 miles that carry the “intermediate” label, and road courses make up the rest of the schedule.

NASCAR has experienced problems with the quality of racing at its short tracks in the first year of the Next Gen car, though the second go-round at Richmond seemed to be a step toward fixing the issue.

Fans and some of the racing media came into the year calling for the addition of another short track on the annual schedule, perhaps taking away from Atlanta, Las Vegas, or Kansas (the site of the week’s race). The lack of suitable venues has been an issue.

Until now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped revive North Wilkesboro

The return of racing to North Wilkesboro Speedway last Wednesday got a little less attention than it deserved because NASCAR had just set its Cup Series playoff field, and the Darlington playoff opener was days away.

However, the night was an overwhelming success in front of approximately 20,000 fans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the 125-lap Late Models main event, and rising JR Motorsports star Carson Kvapil scored the win.

Earnhardt loved seeing one of his cars win but even happier that the night was a success. That’s because he played a meaningful role in the revival of North Wilkesboro, which hosted Cup Series races from 1949-96. Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon won there in the final season. Before that, Richard Petty scored 15 victories there and Darrell Waltrip 10.

“When I was standing here before the race started, getting ready to get in the car, I almost wanted to cry,” Earnhardt said, according to The Athletic. “I was so emotional because every seat was filled, and I still can’t believe this happened. This place was forgotten about, and anyone on the planet was ready to argue with you, ‘They ain’t bringing it back. It ain’t never coming back.’”

North Wilkesboro and Nashville Fairgrounds belong on NASCAR’s radar

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hosted 16 episodes in 2020-21 of Lost Speedways, a Peacock network series highlighting the history of abandoned racetracks across the country. North Wilkesboro wasn’t one of the tracks featured, but it has always been a venue he’s regarded as special. Earnhardt began speaking several years ago with Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, wondering what it would take to bring any sort of racing back to the 0.625-mile track. Wednesday was a successful test.

With some additional upgrades, North Wilkesboro could be ready to host a race. Meanwhile, efforts are also on the way to complete a renovation of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, another short track with a rich history, to make it suitable for NASCAR.

Longtime fans who understand the role short tracks played in growing NASCAR into a major national sport would embrace seeing North Wilkesboro or Nashville take one date a year from an intermediate track that currently has two races.

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