'Start your engines' Drivers face unfamiliar venue with All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway

Sunday, May 21, 2023
2023 All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway
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The last time the track hosted a Cup Series race was in 1996 when Jeff Gordon won.

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. -- William Byron has driven past North Wilkesboro Speedway on his way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. So has Brad Keselowski and many other North Carolina-based NASCAR drivers.

Like most, they'd never been inside the track before this week. And none of the drivers on the NASCAR circuit have raced a Cup Series car here.

That should make the All-Star race on Sunday night at the restored .625-mile track all the more interesting - and unpredictable - when 24 drivers vie for a $1 million first-place prize at the refurbished track.

"I'm not gonna speculate on what type of racing that we're gonna see," Kevin Harvick said. "... When you start speculating on something that's never happened, you're just asking for nothing but trouble. It's going to be fun, but I don't know what that means as far as how the race is going to be."

The last time the track hosted a Cup Series race was in 1996 when Jeff Gordon won.

"Motorsports are critical to North Carolina's history and economy."

It has sat mostly dormant and unused for the better part of 27 years until Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith spearheaded an effort to bring it back to life for NASCAR's 75th-anniversary celebration.

Governor Cooper joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. in September 2022 when it was announced the track was reopening and would be the site for the 2023 All-Star race.

"Motorsports are critical to North Carolina's history, culture and economy, and our investments have helped to get the engines running again in places that needed revival," Governor Cooper said.

Some drivers have tried to get a feel for the track using a simulator leading up to this weekend, and others came earlier in the week to race late-model cars just to get in a few laps.

The practice session on Friday left some to speculate the lack of grip on the track could make it difficult to pass. Others said it could lead to more spinouts.

Despite racing on an asphalt track that hasn't been paved in more than three decades and had weeds growing up through the cracks four years ago, drivers are embracing the great unknown.

The track has already been patched in several areas and could receive more patchwork during breaks in the race if pieces start coming up.

"I like the fact that they didn't repave it and they wanted to get at least one race on the original surface," Keselowski said. "I certainly respect it and I think there's an industry expectation that it's probably not gonna go off without a flaw. There will probably be something, but I think there's some tolerance for that being that this is an All-Star event, an exhibition race and how hard the industry has pulled together to try to get this track back to life. We'll deal with it as it comes."

Byron said racing on Sunday night will feel a little like stepping back in time.

"It makes me a fan again of what we do. I just think that's cool versus going to ... no offense, Kansas or somewhere," Byron said.

Given there are no assurances that racing will return to North Wilkesboro, Keselowski said this will be "a big race to win" for bragging rights.

"It's a chance to put your name on a track that has defeated death in a lot of ways," Keselowski said. "I think that's gonna carry a lot of weight and prestige."

It will be an emotional Sunday night for Harvick, who'll run his final All-Star race in the No. 29 car with his old white Busch Light paint scheme.

After Dale Earnhardt's death at the Daytona 500 in 2001, Harvick took over Earnhardt's role for owner Richard Childress Racing, who changed the car number from the iconic No. 3 to 29. Harvick went to win later that year at Atlanta, en route to a standout career that will come to an end when he retires after this season.

"Dale's passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took," said Harvick, who normally races the No. 4 car for Stewart Haas-Racing. "Looking back on it now, I realize the importance of getting in that car."

Harvick pushed to ride the No. 29 car one more time and thanked SHR and RCR for agreeing to make it happen.

"It's an honor and a privilege to drive it one last time," Harvick said.

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Daniel Suarez and Chris Buescher will start on the front row for Sunday night's All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway after winning their respective 60-lap heats.

Suarez beat out Joey Logano in the first heat at the .625-mile renovated track on a night in which NASCAR experimented with its wet weather tire package for the first time on the Cup Series cars following a light, but steady rain. Buescher won the second heat after leading all 60 laps as drivers started on slick tires before NASCAR had them switch to the wet weather tires for the second half of the race after some drizzle.

Joey Logano and Austin Dillon will start on the second row, while Chase Briscoe and William Byron will be on the third row.

The 21 drivers who qualified for the 200-lap All-Star race by virtue of their past accomplishments were divided into two heats as part of a unique format for this year's race. They will be joined Sunday night by the top two finishers from the All-Star Open, which precedes the actual All-Star race, and the top fan vote-getter.


As usual, the 200-lap All-Star race will have a unique format.

Twenty-one drivers have already qualified for the All-Star race by virtue of their past achievements, while two others will advance through Sunday's All-Star Open and a third through the fan vote.

Alex Bowman will not race due to an injury.


Kyle Larson, who had the fastest lap at practice on Friday, is the favorite to win the All-Star race at 7-1 odds, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. He's followed closely by William Byron, last week's winner at Darlington Raceway, and Harvick at 15-2.