Last night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got back behind the wheel of a late model stock car and ran a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where he ultimately finished third… though he obviously wanted to win, I’d say that’s pretty damn cool and very fitting:
Of course, Dale Jr.’s dad, the late, great Dale Earnhardt Sr., raced in the #3 car during most of his time in the Cup Series, and last night, Jr. raced in the #3 Sun Drop car, which is very similar to the exact Chevy he raced at this exact track in 1993.
Sun Drop is a popular soda here in North Carolina and throughout the southeast, and sponsored his dad for many years during the prime of his racing career. Sr. won five Cup Series races at NWS in total.
I mean, really… how badass is this paint scheme? And it was also really easy to spot on the track… what a full circle moment for him, though:
Dale Jr. has been a huge part in the momentum behind getting the track reopened, which has sat dormant on the side of 421 for about 25 years.
It first opened in 1947 as a dirt track in rural Wilkes county at the inception of the sport, and was later paved in 1958 and ran some of the biggest races in NASCAR up until the last Winston Cup Series race in 1996.
So of course, it was very special for him to be able to see what an incredible turnout this race had, considering it’s something most people said would never happen.
He spoke about what it meant to him after the race, and how he almost shed a few tears ahead of hopping into the car to start the race:
“I’m gonna tell you, when I was standing here before the race started, getting ready to get in the car, I almost wanted to cry. It was so emotional, because every seat was filled, and I still can’t believe this happened. I still can’t believe this happened, man.
This place was forgotten about, anyone on the planet was ready to argue with you, ‘They ain’t bringing that back. That ain’t ever coming back.’ There’s a lot of people that believed in it, but not enough, you know. But enough, enough switches got flipped and enough fortunate things happened that here we are.
But I still don’t believe it. But boy, I’m gonna tell you, that moment getting ready to climb in that car and seeing all the people they were anticipating the race, you could feel it, the energy. It was so amazing. It felt exactly like being here in 1990, you know what I mean?
Looking in the grandstands. It felt like it was a Cup race about to pop off with Ricky Rudd, and dad, and you know, Bodine, Darrell and all those guys.”
I mean, the sold-out race at this track really looked (and felt) like 1996:
In the end, Carson Kvapil, a JR Motorsports late model driver, took home the checkered flag, and his owner, Mr. Dale Jr., even helped carry the cooler to victory lane to celebrate with a very well-deserved cold one:
My favorite part of this story, other than the fact that the reopening of this track has been a massive success thus far, is that it’s something most people thought would never, ever happen.
I can’t tell you how many times I drove past that little old Speedway growing up and thought how cool it would be to maybe see a race there one day, though, realistically, it seemed like more of a daydream than anything else.
And because of so many people who put in a lot of work and spent countless hours campaigning on behalf of this supposedly-forgotten about track and very important piece of NASCAR history, it’s officially BACK, and possibly, on it’s way to being better than ever.
Though of course, they’ll need to touch it up with some new paint, and ideally get the plumbing and parts of the electrical system working again, the vintage, lived-in, throwback feel of last night is part of what made it so freaking cool. It’s definitely a night I’ll never forget.
Jr. is such an incredible ambassador to the sport, too, and I know many of the people there last night were there to see him, but it represents something much larger than one person or sponsor.
For me, it goes to show that grassroots, local movements of any kind really matter, and that, as long as you never forget where you come from and believe in something, anything is possible.
And it’s probably why my daddy taught me that you never say never, and in this instance, “raise Hell, praise Dale,” is most appropriate.
Here’s a little bit more of Jr.’s post-race interview: