Terry Labonte (No 5) and Elton Sawyer (No 27) bring the field to the start of the 1996 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Mark Martin is in No. 6 and the No. 43 is Bobby Hamilton.
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NASCAR's Return to Wilkesboro Is a Big Deal for Diehard Fans

Well, it's about damned time.

When are the "leaders" going to realize — American, racing or otherwise — that you don't throw away your history? You embrace it, learn from it, preserve it with maintenance if needed ... but you don't discard it into the trash heap.

North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the pioneer tracks of NASCAR, right up there with Darlington and Martinsville. The first Cup Series race was held here in 1949, just months after the sport became sanctioned after its initial meeting in Daytona Beach, Florida. But, it's not just an old track. It's located in the foothills of the southern Appalachian mountains, right where the moonshining operations — or more importantly, the grassroots of NASCAR — took place. It's held just a mile or two up the road from the winding mountain roads where some of the early legends of the sport once dodged the government, as the origins of America intended it.

Junior Johnson could tell you all about it if he was still with us this weekend. It's sad he isn't here to share the return to his backyard.

So, for the first time in nearly 27 years, when Jeff Gordon edged out Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the win on Sept. 29, 1996, we have a full slate of NASCAR action at North Wilkesboro. Finally.

We'll have the Pit Crew Challenge on Friday night (also back after a decade's hiatus) that actually has a massive bit to do with how the actual All-Star weekend will line up. We have a Truck Series race. We'll have heat racing on Saturday night and the always-fun open race as the Sunday matinee. And, then the finale, the best part, on Sunday evening: the featured event on the five-eighths of a mile track, the All-Star Race.

Why did we ever leave this place? Oh, the track had gotten run down. It was outdated for mid 1990s stock-racing. The buildings were run down.

Well ... fix it, update it! When the White House was falling apart around 70 years ago, we didn't knock it down — right? We updated it, dammit.

In the late 1990s, NASCAR was beginning to think about expansion. The sport was eyeballing head-scratching new venues like Seattle, Denver ... and plenty of other places whose residents couldn't yawn more loudly at the thought of having NASCAR in their hometowns.

This was instead of working with the tracks to modernize an older venue that had been around since the checkered-flag beginnings of the sport. As recently as two years ago, it had more weeds growing from the cracks in the surface than a cow pasture with a bunch of satisfied bovines. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who talked often about North Wilkesboro, took up the push to bring racing back to a track that he'd eyeballed as part of his Lost Speedways series. And nothing in stock-car racing moves the needle more than an Earnhardt taking up the cause. The stubborn glacier of Wilkesboro momentum began to melt a bit and wiggle loose after nearly three decades of no forward motion, and then Earnhardt announced on his podcast last year that the All-Star Weekend in 2023 would be held just a short drive north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Nobody seemed to have a problem with the idea. The reaction was more like, "Why didn't we do this sooner?" more than the notion being questioned.

So we're back. The ghosts of NASCAR's past are grinning and nodding, as well as today's fans who know and understand the sport's history. The track will be a challenge, like Darlington, but why would we want it any other way?

It's going to be a great weekend, folks.

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