2023 NSJ Comeback of the Year: North Wilkesboro’s return helped revive North Carolina’s long, rich NASCAR past

North Wilkesboro Speedway made its return to the NASCAR Cup Series by hosting May’s All-Star Race. (Matt Kelley / AP Photo)

In the last three years, North State Journal’s Comeback of the Year has come from a college game.

In 2020, it was Duke basketball hitting two buzzer-beaters against rival UNC to rally from 13 down to win in Chapel Hill.

Two years ago, it was another stunning finish in a rivalry when NC State football scored twice in just over two minutes to beat the Tar Heels in Raleigh.

And last year, it was App State’s Hail Mary against Troy — which came after the Mountaineers hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay” for the first time earlier in the day — that proved to be the most shocking moment of 2022.

The 2023 Comeback of the Year was more of a slow burn — nearly 27 years, if anyone’s counting.

North Wilkesboro Speedway last hosted a NASCAR Cup Season points race on Sept. 29, 1996. Jeff Gordon won, while the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the runner-up.

In an effort to grow the sport, NASCAR left behind several of the tracks that were the backbone of stock car racing’s past, opting instead for sites sprinkled across the country. That included North Wilkesboro, which slowly fell into disrepair after the Cup Series left.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., an admirer of stock car racing’s rich history who hosted two seasons of “Lost Speedways,” turned his focus to bringing back North Wilkesboro. First, Earnhardt helped boost interest by having the track scanned for the iRacing platform.

Then in 2021, North Wilkesboro’s return got a boost from the state legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper when $10 million in American Rescue Plan grants was allocated to the speedway. Just over a year later, it was announced the Cup Series would return to the track by hosting the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race.

On May 21, the comeback became complete when Kyle Larson won the All-Star Race and its million-dollar purse.

“They did a great job reviving this place and making this feel real,” Larson said of stock car racing’s highest level returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway. “I don’t think any of us ever thought it would get to this point when Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and everybody was here cleaning up weeds and everything, trying to get it ready for drag racing. None of us thought an All-Star Race could be here or a Cup Series race in general.”

The return was such a success that NASCAR is bringing the non-points race back to the track in 2024. The mid-May event will have CARS Series races Tuesday and Wednesday; Cup and Truck series practices on Friday; a Truck Series race on Saturday; and the main event, the NASCAR Open and then All-Star Race, on Sunday, May 19.

“We are very grateful that NASCAR and FOX Sports have supported our efforts to bring the NASCAR All-Star Race back to North Wilkesboro in 2024,” Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said after the announcement. “… It’s hard to imagine a more magical moment than what we witnessed with NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway this past May.”

The success of North Wilkesboro’s revival has led to speculation that Rockingham Speedway — which also received funds from the state and last hosted the Cup Series in 2004 — could be next.

“At the time that we lost Wilkesboro and Rockingham, the sport was really growing,” Terry Labonte, the two-time Cup Series champion, said. “It was expanding farther out west with new tracks (like) Kansas and Chicago, and the new track in Fontana was there. And so I understand all that, but it’s really nice to see Wilkesboro come back.

“You know, I’d love for someday to see Rockingham come back on the schedule and maybe not run it every year, but you could run it on the schedule somehow. It would be really cool, I think. And I think the fans would really love it because it’s a great track.”

In a time when NASCAR is trying to stoke interest with more road courses — even a street race — and a return to the big track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nothing seems to draw more interest than going back to stock car racing’s roots.

While Duke and NC State’s wins over UNC or App State’s last-second heave created memories that will never be forgotten by those who experienced it, North Wilkesboro’s comeback has revived echoes of the past — and possibilities for the future.