Kyle Larson dominates as racing returns to North Wilkesboro

NASCAR got back to its roots by holding its All-Star Race at the iconic N.C. track

A flight team flies over North Wilkesboro following the national anthem as NASCAR returned to the historic track after a 27-year absence (photo by Shawn Krest)

NORTH WILKESBORO — The historic track may have shown its age, with a patched-up racing surface, but NASCAR returned to its roots on Saturday night.

For the first time since 1996, the Cup Series held a race at North Wilkesboro, as the All-Star Race produced a dominating victory by Kyle Larson. Larson won the million-dollar prize for the third time in his career, winning the non-points event at a third different track.

“Winning at a historic track like this,” Larson marveled in his postrace press conference, “to be the first Cup winner since ’96 and put my name in the book of guys that have won here.”

Larson took advantage of an early trip to pit row during a caution, then took advantage of his new tires to blow past the field into first place, leading for the final 145 laps and winning by 12 seconds.

“I didn’t know whether it was a tire advantage or what, but once (I pitted) I was picking people off,” he said.

The performance on race day was a surprise, as Larson struggled with his car all week.

“We were godawful,” Larson said of the days leading up to the All-Star Race. “In practice Friday, I was the (second) worst 30-lap average, and I went backwards in the heat races yesterday. But I drove from dead last to the lead. Everything my car did bad on Friday and Saturday, it did great today.”

Larson won the truck series race on Saturday night and found a line on the back turn that he thought would pay dividends and save wear on his tires in Sunday’s race. But he didn’t think it would matter much, let alone consider his chances of sweeping both races.

“Friday was really bad,” he said. “And I was super loose in the heat race, with no grip. I had not great expectations for tonight. I didn’t think there was enough they (the crew) could do to make it better. I thought we’d run around 15th tonight. Plus it’s a short race, you can’t pass here.”

At the start of the race, the car was responding better than he hoped. “I put the anchor down,” he said. “I got stuck in the outside lane, but things were stable. I was thinking, ‘I might be all right here. Not bad. I still can’t pass.’ I was never thinking I could track the lead.”

Then came the pit stop that changed everything.

“That was an old-school ass whooping for sure!” he said in his Victory Lane interview, as his wife chugged a beer to help get the celebration started. “It was a great car in the long run. I got out to a big lead. I could see everyone’s cars were driving like crap in front of me.”

The remarkable turnaround of Larson’s car after a pit crew makeover mirrored the change that has gone on at North Wilkesboro over the past year. The track had fallen into disrepair after being closed for more than a decade and had weeds growing on the track.

“They did a great job reviving this place and making this feel real,” Larson said. “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.”

Ty Gibbs, a NASCAR rookie who earned a spot in the race by finishing in the top two in the 100-lap open race that preceded the All-Star Race, put North Wilkesboro’s revival in perspective.

“It’s pretty cool, pretty special to be here,” Gibbs said. “I wasn’t alive when they raced here, but it’s really cool. It’s a worn-out race track, but it’s fun. Just kind of looking for patches, looking for grip.”

The track certainly wasn’t pretty to look at, with a hodgepodge of repairs, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Friday, I was like, ‘We suck. They need to repave this place.’” Larson said. “Tonight, I’m like, ‘Leave it! Don’t touch it!’”

The original plan was to repave the whole track eventually, although there were mixed feelings on the need for that in the near future.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing them add patches of pavement,” Larson said. “I don’t think they need to repave the whole thing. I’d hate to see them repave the whole surface, but maybe go in and add to the character with patches in certain spots.”

Regardless of the work still in store for one of the places where motorsports were born, the feeling seemed unanimous that North Wilkesboro shouldn’t be mothballed again.

“I really want to see us come back here,” Larson said. “NASCAR has a lot of roots here. It deserves a spot on our schedule — off-points, points race, whatever.”