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Dale Earnhardt Jr. gearing up to race at North Wilkesboro

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.”