Notes of Interest
● The NASCAR Cup Series recently competed at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, which bills itself as the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR. But the throwback of all throwbacks comes this weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway. The .625-mile oval located in the hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina, had sat dormant for 25 years, save for a one-year respite in 2010 when local investors cleaned it up enough to host a handful of grassroots Late Model racing series. The track closed again in the spring of 2011, reverting back to its Scooby-Doo haunted mansion vibe. Once a staple of the NASCAR Cup Series when Winston cigarettes was its title sponsor, North Wilkesboro was cast aside, despite being a NASCAR original and hosting 93 Cup Series races since 1949, the last of which came on Sept. 29, 1996 when Jeff Gordon beat Dale Earnhardt by 1.73 seconds to win the Tyson Holly Farms 400. But thanks to an $18 million cash infusion from the state as part of the American Rescue Plan, as well as another seven-figure spend by track operator Speedway Motorsports, North Wilkesboro has been revived. It had a soft opening last August with Modified and Late Model racing before its grand reopening this week with five days of racing, from the CARS Late Model Stock Tour to the NASCAR Truck Series and, finally, the Cup Series via the non-points NASCAR All-Star Race at 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday. The track Enoch Staley built in 1946 – first as a five-eighths mile dirt oval where whiskey runners displayed their skill behind the wheel, along with their mechanical acumen for building cars that were faster than those of the revenuers, and two years ahead of NASCAR’s first season and three years before the first Strictly Stock (now Cup Series) race was held – is back, and the resto-mod of racetracks is ready for NASCAR’s return.
● DYK? The frontstretch of North Wilkesboro Speedway runs downhill and the backstretch runs uphill. This forces drivers to change their approach to each corner of the racetrack, as they’re carrying more speed entering turn one than they are going into turn three.
● It’s a revival within a revival this weekend at North Wilkesboro as Kevin Harvick brings back the No. 29 for the All-Star Race. The 23-year veteran of the NASCAR Cup Series spent his first 13 years driving the No. 29 for Richard Childress Racing (RCR). Harvick joined Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2014 and has since scored 37 of his 60 career Cup Series victories. The 2023 season is Harvick’s final year in the Cup Series before he retires and joins the FOX broadcast booth in 2024. As much as Harvick has always looked forward, this year is different, with the 47-year-old taking time to reflect on the past. Bringing the No. 29 back for the All-Star Race is perhaps the best example. Harvick’s Ford Mustang will be white and feature the red stylized No. 29 that he drove throughout 2001 when he finished ninth in the championship standings thanks to his debut win March 11 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and a second victory July 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Busch Light, the primary partner for Harvick in the All-Star Race, will bring back its logos from that era, completing the early aughts look of Harvick’s ride in the All-Star Race. Fans wanting to get their throwback No. 29 gear in advance of the All-Star Race can visit SHR’s online store at store.stewarthaasracing.com for a full offering of merchandise, including diecast replicas of the No. 29 Busch Light Ford Mustang, along with T-shirts, hats and variety of hard goods such as flags, coozies and decals.
● The first laps Harvick takes this week at North Wilkesboro won’t come in his No. 29 Busch Light Ford Mustang. Instead, they will come in a Late Model stock car. Harvick will run the CARS Late Model Stock Tour event, practicing his No. 62 Hunt Brothers® Pizza Ford Mustang on Tuesday before racing it on Wednesday. Embracing the retro theme of North Wilkesboro, Harvick’s No. 62 Late Model has a paint scheme harkening back to his early Late Model days when he was competing throughout his home state of California. The No. 62 is a tribute to his late father-in-law, John Paul Linville, a veteran racer who began his career at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Linville won back-to-back Late Model Sportsman Division championships in 1968 and 1969 before taking a third title in 1971. In between, Linville earned the 1970 State Limited Sportsman championship at the Raleigh (N.C.) Fairgrounds by winning 12 of the track’s 15 races. Linville went on to compete in the NASCAR Xfinity Series where he made 136 starts between 1982 and 1992. Harvick is a co-owner of the CARS Tour with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Burton and Justin Marks. With Harvick’s entry into the CARS Late Model Stock Tour event at North Wilkesboro, he is once again behind the wheel of a Kevin Harvick Inc. (KHI) machine, bringing the championship-winning organization back to the track after a 12-year hiatus. KHI competed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Truck Series and ARCA Series from 2001 through 2011 winning 10 Xfinity Series races, 45 Truck Series races and two Truck Series driver championships with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr.
● Harvick’s very first laps at North Wilkesboro came way back in March 2010. In that lone year since NASCAR Cup Series stock cars had last roared around the .625-mile oval when Jeff Gordon won the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400 on Sept. 29, Harvick drove his No. 29 machine for Richard Childress Racing around North Wilkesboro as part of a promotional event for the speedway. Alton McBride Jr., and a cadre of local investors, including Terri Parsons, the widow of Wilkes County native and NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, were bringing racing back to North Wilkesboro, with the USARacing Pro Cup Series headlining a grassroots motorsports lineup that would run Labor Day weekend. Harvick’s first lap was a slow one, as he was also taking in the moment, but eventually he put the pedal down, hammering a few hot laps on the track’s weathered surface. “Do not do anything to this track,” Harvick said. “It’s perfect.” Harvick’s words helped the Labor Day weekend race at North Wilkesboro grow to include the PASS Super Late Models and the ASA Late Model Series. But as the curtain closed on 2010, racing’s return to North Wilkesboro wasn’t enough to sustain another season. It was one and done. It took 14 years for Harvick to make his first drive around North Wilkesboro and then another 13 years before this week’s events at the speedway allowed for his second tour of the track.
● Harvick has always been an all-star. Since his 2001 NASCAR Cup Series debut, Harvick has been a part of every All-Star Race – the only active driver to do so. The driver of the No. 29 Busch Light Ford Mustang first earned entry into the All-Star Race by winning in just his third career Cup Series start on March 11, 2001 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Sunday at North Wilkesboro Speedway marks the 39th anniversary of the All-Star Race and it will be Harvick’s 23rd straight appearance in the race – the most of any active driver.
● Harvick is a two-time winner of the All-Star Race. He won the specialty non-points race for the first time in 2007 by leading the final 20 laps and crossing the stripe .141 of a second ahead of second-place Jimmie Johnson. Harvick scored his second All-Star win in 2019 when he led twice for 36 laps, including the last 11, to take the victory by .325 of a second over Daniel Suárez. Both victories came at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
● Charlotte hosted the first All-Star Race and 34 in total. The All-Star Race debuted on May 25, 1985 at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval and it was won by Darrell Waltrip. Atlanta hosted the second All-Star Race in 1986 before returning to Charlotte for a 33-race run. The 2020 All-Star Race was held at the .533-mile Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway – the first time the All-Star Race wasn’t held at a 1.5-mile oval. The All-Star Race returned to a 1.5-mile oval in June 2021 when Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth began hosting the All-Star Race for a two-year stretch. North Wilkesboro marks only the second time the All-Star Race has been held at anything other than a 1.5-mile oval.
● Harvick has seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in his 22 career All-Star Races. Harvick finished 17th in last year’s All-Star Race at Texas and 15th in the 2021 event. Prior to the All-Star Race moving to Texas, Harvick had finished third or better in five of the previous seven All-Star Races, including the 2020 All-Star Race at Bristol when he finished third.
● After years of complexity, the 2023 version of the All-Star Race has opted for simplicity. Two heat races on Saturday will set the starting lineup for Sunday's main event – a 200 lapper with a competition break at or around Lap 100. All laps (caution and green flag) will count, and overtime rules are in effect to ensure a green-flag finish. Each team will start on sticker tires and have three additional sets to use. After the competition break, however, only one additional set of stickers can be used. The undercard All-Star Open, featuring drivers not previously eligible for the All-Star Race, will be 100 laps with a competition break at or around Lap 40. Three Open drivers will advance to the All-Star Race – the top two race finishers and the Fan Vote Winner. All-Star festivities begin Friday evening with a Pit Crew Challenge to determine the starting lineups for the heat races and Open. Each car’s qualifying time will be based solely on their pit stop time. Teams must complete a four-tire stop; timing lines will be established one box behind and one box ahead of the designated pit box. The 22 drivers already locked into the field will be split into two 60-lap heat races on Saturday night which will determine the starting lineup for Sunday’s All-Star Race. Results of the first heat will establish the inside row and results of the second heat will establish the outside row. The weekend will concludes Sunday night with the All-Star Open and All-Star Race. Technical rules for the cars will remain the same as other NASCAR Cup Series short track races. Those eligible for the All-Star Race include drivers who won a points event in either 2022 or 2023, drivers who won an All-Star Race and compete fulltime, and drivers who won a NASCAR Cup Series championship and compete fulltime.
Kevin Harvick, Driver of the No. 29 Busch Light Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
You’re bringing back the No. 29 for one time only this weekend at North Wilkesboro. You got in that car and entered the NASCAR Cup Series under very trying circumstances, as you were driving the car that the sport’s icon, Dale Earnhardt, once drove. Can you explain what that moment was like and your decision to race the No. 29 in this year’s All-Star Race?
“When I sat in the 29 for the first time, it really wasn’t by choice, but I definitely wouldn’t have done it any differently. Dale’s passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took. Looking back on it now, I realize the importance of getting in the Cup car, and then I wound up winning my first race at Atlanta in the 29 car after Dale’s death. The significance and the importance of keeping that car on the racetrack and winning that race early at Atlanta – knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on – was so important. I had a great 13 years at RCR and really learned a lot through the process because of being thrown into Dale’s car, where my first press conference as a Cup Series driver was the biggest press conference I would ever have in my career, where my first moments were my biggest moments. With this being my last year as a Cup Series driver, we wanted to highlight a lot of these moments, and many were made at RCR in that 29 car. So, with the All-Star Race going to North Wilkesboro – a place with a ton of history – we thought it made sense in a year full of milestones and moments to highlight where it all started.”
How special is it to be back behind the wheel of the No. 29 one final time?
“Everything that started in my Cup career started at RCR. It wasn’t supposed to start in the 29, but it wound up being my first in the 29 after Dale’s death. And to be able to put that car back out on the racetrack is something that we all thought would not ever happen again. But with Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing working together and making my crazy idea work out, and being able to see the first win paint scheme in the 29 and to have it on the racetrack at North Wilkesboro is something I think we’re all excited about. I know the fans are excited, but for us it’s an honor and a privilege to drive it one last time. It will be a fun night for all of us.”
How did it come about to bring back the No. 29?
“It was really simple. We started the retirement planning at Stewart-Haas Racing and working through things, and we got done with what I believe was the second meeting and I said, ‘Hey, by the way, I want to drive the 29 car at the All-Star Race.’ And they all kind of looked at me and were like, ‘You serious?’ Everybody kind of slept on it and talked about it in the next couple of days, and nobody said no. So we went back to the next meeting and I said, ‘What about the 29 car? Do you guys think we can pull that off?’ They said, ‘Somebody’s going to have to call Richard.’ I said I would call Richard, so I called Richard Childress and said, ‘Hey, we want to drive the 29 car at North Wilkesboro and run the first win paint scheme.’ And he said, ‘Kevin, you can have whatever you want. Do whatever you want. You’ve been great for RCR and we’d love to work with you guys to figure it out.’ And they all figured it out and here we are.”
What does it mean to not only see racing return to North Wilkesboro, but to be an active participant?
“I’m fortunate because I drove on the track when this revival first started. I actually drove the 29 car in 2010 at North Wilkesboro Speedway the first time that they cleaned it up. Anytime you get to go to a great racetrack and put on a race that you haven’t been to is fun, but North Wilkesboro has a lot of history in our sport. North Carolina, in general, has a lot of history with the racetrack and asphalt racing. I get to run there twice – with the CARS Late Model stock race Wednesday night and then we’ll run the Cup car on Sunday. It’s going to be a great week.”
When the moment comes when you actually climb back into the No. 29 car and buckle in and fire the engine, can you describe what your mindset will be?
“Well, I think it’s going to be strange just climbing into it, right? For me, there’s a huge sense of pride in being able to be a part of something like this with both organizations. Going back in time and doing everything that weekend in the 29 car is something I’m really excited about. And I think when you go out on the racetrack, the fans will be in the same boat. As you go by the first time, people are going to be, like, ‘I can’t believe that actually happened.’”
You’ve been a part of every All-Star Race since you joined the NASCAR Cup Series. What makes this one at North Wilkesboro different?
“I don’t know the last time the All-Star Race was the most anticipated event of the season. Fans are going to show up in droves. North Wilkesboro is a great short track, the asphalt’s worn out, and I think it’s going to be a fantastic event.”
This is your 23rd and final season in the NASCAR Cup Series and you’ll be making your 23rd straight appearance in the All-Star Race. We’d call that a testament to your consistency. What would you call it?
“I was fortunate to win the first year and qualify for the All-Star Race and, after that, we were able to win the All-Star Race a couple of times, so we make sure we stay in it every year. Obviously, winning a championship doesn’t hurt with your qualification for that, either. For me, I think as you look at the All-Star Race, it’s fun to be a part of. It’s unique and it’s different and all those things combined, so it’s always been an interesting race.”
The All-Star Race doesn’t pay any points. Instead, it pays $1 million to the winner. How does that dynamic make the All-Star Race different from a regular, points-paying race?
“When you put a million dollars on the line, we can all become idiots and do things that we wouldn’t otherwise do. But I think that’s the whole point of the race, right? You want people to reach outside their comfort zone to do things that they wouldn’t normally do in order to try to win a race. And you add the North Wilkesboro Speedway back on the schedule, with none of us ever having raced there before in a Cup car, it’s something that everybody wants – to put that trophy on their mantle.”
This is only the second time the All-Star Race has been run on a short track. Does that ratchet up the intensity?
“I think having the All-Star Race at a short track will change that immediately, just because the short-track racing mentality is a little bit different than at the mile-and-a-half racetracks. North Wilkesboro is very unique in the fact that the asphalt is very old, very worn-out. The cars are going to have a tough time getting ahold of the racetrack, so when you add that in to just the short-track mentality in general, I think we’ll put on a great race and we can all have fun driving the cars and trying to make a difference inside the seat.”
How important is keeping historic tracks like North Wilkesboro open?
“I think when you look at the North Wilkesboros, the Darlingtons, and even when you look at some of the other short tracks, Hickory Motor Speedway, Carraway, a lot of those racetracks, especially here in the Southeast, there’s a lot of history and a lot of heritage that go with those particular racetracks. And I think the more we can do to not have them close down like we’ve seen with Greenville-Pickens and those types of short tracks, the better off we will be. Really, when you have that built-in in following of the short-track system, it bleeds all the way up through. And when you can have a place for the younger generation to go and race at a place like Greenville-Pickens or Hickory Motor Speedway and some of these places as you come up through the ranks, it’s important because they have a loyal following of competitors and fans and it allows you to race against enough people on the racetrack in front of enough fans to make a name for yourself. So it’s important that we protect these racetracks. The amount of people and time and effort that believe in North Wilkesboro is what you need in a lot of these short-track communities, as well. Hopefully it all works out and we can continue to protect these tracks like they did with North Wilkesboro.”
What are you looking forward to the most when it comes to this week’s slate of racing at North Wilkesboro?
“I’m going to run the CARS Tour Late Model race on Wednesday, so my week actually starts on Tuesday with practice in the Late Model stock car and the race on Wednesday night, and then we practice and qualify the 29 car Friday, have heat races on Saturday, and then we race again on Sunday. It just has this buzz to it. It’s the type of moment I like to be a part of, and I know a lot of people haven’t had that opportunity to experience that really high-end, electric feel that our sport can bring. That’s the part I’m looking forward to the most – the energy that the fans bring. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some of these moments where you feel like you’re living this out-of-body experience that’s just hard to explain because of the electricity and the excitement in the stadium. I hope that’s what it feels like because I’d like our young kids that drive these cars to feel those electric moments and experience that. If you’re going to be in this sport, it’s something you should experience, and I think North Wilkesboro will have that electricity.”
Is the excitement level at North Wilkesboro going to be off the charts?
“I’ve been here for a long time, and the young kids in this particular sport at this particular time remind me that I raced in a different century, most of them being born at the very end of it and some after. North Wilkesboro was not there when I started my career, so it’s been since 1996 that they’ve had a competitive race in the Cup Series on the racetrack. To be able to go back to North Wilkesboro is special, because it’s something that I’d never thought would happen because I really thought it was just a dream that was too big for a group of people who were working hard on a project to revive the racetrack. And here we are about ready to run the All-Star Race there in the Cup Series, so kudos to that group of people for digging their heels in and continuing to work to keep North Wilkesboro alive. And I think when you look at North Wilkesboro and the races it’s had in the past and what it has meant to the Cup Series and, really, when you look at the Southeast and you look at the racetracks that we’ve had in this area – we’ve seen a few of them go away, not many of them come back. Marcus Smith and his group at SMI have done a great job of reviving the racetrack, taking so many of those nostalgic pieces of the puzzle and trying to make them modern, but also make them represent what they did in that particular time period, whether it’s a snack bar or a victory lane or whatever it is. I can’t wait to see it all. I haven’t actually seen it all since last year, so I’ll get my first glance at it Tuesday night for the CARS Tour practice and spend the week there racing Wednesday night and again through the weekend in the Cup car.”