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Friday 5: North Wilkesboro Speedway’s return reinvigorates community

Following Erik Jones' surprise win at Darlington Raceway, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, and Kevin Harvick find themselves below the cutline for the Round of 12.

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

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 in2010-11 — 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

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 thecommunity 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.