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Friday 5: Dale Jr. excited for Cup’s return to North Wilkesboro

Steve Letarte shares his memories from the last time NASCAR raced at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996 and he went to victory lane thanks to Jeff Gordon's win. Letarte also previews the format for the All-Star Open.

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — For as special as it was to race at North Wilkesboro Speedway last August, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows Sunday’s All-Star Race there will be emotional.

This weekend marks the return of the NASCAR Cup Series to the historic track for the first time since 1996.

“I can’t wait for this weekend,” said Earnhardt, who finished 16th in Wednesday night’s Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race at North Wilkesboro and was instrumental in the track’s revival. “I think that’s probably going to trigger some more emotions when you see Cup cars racing around here.”

MORE: Former competitors share memories of North Wilkesboro

Anticipation has built since last September’s announcement that Cup would race at North Wilkesboro this year. A capacity crowd of about 30,000 is expected for the All-Star Race.

Earnhardt admits he didn’t expect Cup to race there until Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track, told Earnhardt of the plans.

“I thought he was going to tell me that we were going to have a Truck race. … I never thought Cup would ever go back,” Earnhardt said in April. “That was never the idea.”

Earnhardt kept telling Smith last year that Smith “probably could only run a Truck race there.” Earnhardt questioned if there was enough infrastructure for a Cup-size crowd. Speedway Motorsports has since made significant upgrades throughout the facility.

“He just called me one day,” Earnhardt said of Smith, “and was like, ‘Guess what?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy.’”

“But it’s perfect. (The All-Star Race) needs a reboot. It’s great for the track. It’s great for the All-Star Race. This talk about ‘Do we need the All-Star Race?’ Come on. We need the All-Star Race.”

But does it need to be at North Wilkesboro every year?

“I think the All-Star Race should move around,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “I think next year you should come here for a 400-lap race for points.”

Should NASCAR do so, there’s a good chance it could take place on a repaved track. Track officials already have had to make some repairs this week to the track, which was last paved in 1981.

“Maybe they need to repave it after the end of this week,” Earnhardt said. “If the pavement makes it through Sunday without real issues, they could consider taking that risk, but it would be such a risk. It would be a big risk to get that surface to last that much longer.

“Our cars, our program and our style of race can deal with a lot of imperfection, but the Cup crowd, it will not put up with problems and problematic surfaces. One little problem, one car has any kind of an issue from a rock going through their radiator or whatever, you can’t have that going on.

“It’s a big risk that they’re taking now with this surface for this Sunday. I think they won’t want to take that risk again. I’ll be surprised if they do.”

2. Dream gone?

Kyle Busch would like to run in the Indianapolis 500, but he says he’s not pursuing it after previous attempts failed.

Busch’s older brother, Kurt, ran both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in 2014 — the last time a driver competed in both races on the same day.

Kyle Larson is scheduled to compete in both races next year, driving in the Indy 500 for Arrow McLaren.

“Unfortunately, I think Larson got the ride that I was slated to get,” Kyle Busch said this week. “So he’s got that locked up for two years. … Just unfortunate for me wanting to go there and run that race. I had a sponsor lined up to do it and been told no everywhere. It’s really frustrating.”

Busch says he is no longer as focused on racing in the Indy 500.

“I’m not going to be making calls and pushing for it,” Busch said. “If somebody calls me and says they’re ready to go and it all lines up right, so be it, we’ll go do it.”

3. Better than a simulator

The cars aren’t the same. The tires aren’t the same. So what was the value for several Cup drivers running in either the Cars Tour races or the ASA Stars Super Late Model race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro?

Daniel Suarez, who competed in a pair of races, also spent time on a simulator ahead of this weekend. Still, he found the track time helpful.

Suarez said a simulator can only do so much. He notes it’s also important for him to get as much track time as possible because his background is not in short tracks.

His Trackhouse Racing teammate, Ross Chastain, used his race Wednesday to learn the track. Chastain also benefited by being back in a car after his controversial actions in recent weeks and conversations he had with Rick Hendrick, Kyle Larson, Justin Marks and others earlier this week.

“The fun to come out here is nobody (except the spotter and crew chief) can talk to me when I’m in the car,” Chastain said.

William Byron, who has Cup-best three wins this season, continues to use such races to work on his craft.

“I ran a lot of super late models when I was coming up through the ranks but not as much as I wanted to,” he said. “I didn’t win as much as I wanted to. I wanted to get back in them and kind of understand the feel for them and get some experience.

“I feel like it helps me in different ways. I definitely feel like racing in general is helpful in anything I can get in.”

4. Looking to do more

IMSA star Jordan Taylor made his Cup debut earlier this season at Circuit of the Americas, driving for an injured Chase Elliott. Taylor will get another chance to run in NASCAR when he makes his Xfinity Series debut in the June 3 race at Portland International Raceway for Kaulig Racing.

A former IMSA champion, winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and overall winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona, Taylor has been looking to race on oval tracks.

Wednesday, he made his stock car oval debut, competing in the Cars Tour Pro Late Model race at North Wilkesboro. He finished 20th. Taylor said he got the ride with the help of Greg Ives, who has been overseeing the Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Taylor is a backup driver/coach with that entry.

Taylor said after he drove for Elliott at COTA, he had a conversation with Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, about what it would take to get more Cup opportunities.

Gordon said it would be possible for Taylor to switch disciplines “if you commit yourself to it.”

That was among the reasons Taylor drove at North Wilkesboro this week.

“I do have a full-time job that I love, doing a lot of sports car racing,” Taylor said. “It’s my passion, what I grew up doing. Now that I’ve kind of gotten a taste of the NASCAR side, I would love to try to do more, whether it is a limited schedule or what it is. After doing an oval here, I would love to do some more of these just to kind of get more experience with it. If there were openings for a part-time schedule somewhere down the road, I would love to give it a shot, for sure.”

5. Meaningful competition

Bubba Pollard, one of the nation’s top super late model drivers, won Wednesday’s ASA Stars event at North Wilkesboro, beating a field that included Cup drivers William Byron (second), Chase Elliott (third), Daniel Suarez (fifth) and Noah Gragson (30th).

That event followed the Cars Tour races. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Justin Marks and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became co-owners of that series this year. Cup drivers who competed in the Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro were Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Chase Briscoe, Harvick and Suarez.

Pollard says that having Cup drivers compete in short track races and the new ownership group for the Cars Tour is meaningful.

“The publicity,” Pollard said of the Cup drivers competing, “the fans coming out, just everything. This is big for short track racing. … Hopefully, it shows fans that there is some short track racing out there and what we do, and they’ll hopefully continue to watch.”

Pollard said he raced against Elliott and Byron when they were young and it is special to see those drivers return to their roots when they can.

“I grew up racing with Chase,” Pollard said. “I got a lot of respect for him. … It’s big when those guys come and put fans in the stands. It’s big for me. It can potentially bring something to the table for me, sponsor-wise. You never know.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that these guys bring in with (Dale) Jr. and Harvick and Burton doing the Cars Tour. It’s big for short track racing. It’s huge. … The future is bright for short track racing.”