The three-day NASCAR All-Star Race weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway will offer a bit of everything for stock car racing fans, but the spotlight of the Cup Series’ return to the 0.625-mile oval for the first time since 1996 will be on the reborn throwback track itself.
“We wanted it to be simple. We wanted the speedway to be part of the star factor of this event,” Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports president and CEO, said of the event being held at the track.
The three days of Cup events from May 19-21 will be preceded by late model events, with the ASA Stars National Tour competing on Tuesday, May 16, and the CARS Tour racing the following day.
That will set the stage for NASCAR’s return to the track, which last hosted a Cup Series event on Sept. 29, 1996, when Jeff Gordon bested Dale Earnhardt Sr. to win the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro.
On Friday, May 19, the Cup drivers will first have a practice and then the Pit Crew Challenge. In past all-star races, Cup Series teams competed to best the fastest crew in a pit stop simulation. That returns this year, with a twist: The starting order for the two heat races on Saturday will be determined by how the pit crews perform in the challenge.
Before the heat races, the Truck Series will compete in a points event at 1:30 p.m.
That will be followed by Saturday’s two heat races. They will be 60 laps each, with the first heat determining the inside row for Sunday’s main event and the second race lining up the outside row. Those two races will be made up of the 22 drivers who have already secured spots in Sunday’s All-Star Race. Those drivers earned a spot by being a points race winner from this season or last season, a past Cup champion or the winner of a previous All-Star Race.
The 22 drivers already in the field are Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suárez, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace.
Three more drivers will earn a spot in Sunday’s All-Star Race, and they can get in the field one of two ways.
Two drivers will get a spot in the main event by finishing in the top two of Sunday’s All-Star Open, which will take place at 5 p.m. before the 25-car final race. The 100-lap race will have a competition yellow on the 40th lap and standard overtime rules will apply.
A third driver will get into the All-Star Race field via a fan vote.
Sunday’s All-Star Race is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. and will be 200 laps with a competition break around the race’s midway point.
“When we throw the green flag, we should just give them 100 straight laps of green flag racing,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was instrumental in revitalizing North Wilkesboro Speedway and bringing Cup racing back to the track.
“You know, if there’s a natural yellow (flag) in there, fine. but let’s take all the gimmicks out. Let’s just see these cars go around the racetrack. Let’s just watch these drivers struggle with the grip and the challenge of that surface and just watch and see who’s trying to save some tire, who’s maybe trying to take advantage of getting some track position early and let the race sort of play out.”
Earnhardt attended last September’s announcement by Gov. Roy Cooper that the All-Star Race would bring NASCAR back to North Wilkesboro. That came after the North Carolina state budget allocated American Rescue Plan money to speedways across the state, including $18 million to restore the downtrodden track in Wilkes County.
That cleared the path for racing to return to North Wilkesboro, and Smith said fan reaction to races held there last summer contributed to making the racing at the track the centerpiece of the All-Star Race.
“Being there, if you were there this past summer, and you saw the way that the fans kind of interacted with the racetrack, and the time they could see the old building and the old signs and just the way everything worked together,” he said. “The fans are woven into the fabric of this racetrack, and the drivers appreciate that. And so it’s all going to work together. We didn’t want the format to be the story. We wanted the race to be the story, and the racetrack, and it’s going to really provide I think a great platform for the NASCAR All-Star race.”
Cars in Sunday’s final race will start on sticker tires and have three additional new sets available to them for the race, though only one may be used after the competition yellow. Like the All-Star Open, overtime rules will apply. The winner will take home $1 million.