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Elliott: Wilkesboro Owes Much to Earnhardt

The 2020 champion says Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried the event on his shoulders.


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Chase Elliott, a lifelong devotee of short track racing even after his graduation to the upper echelon of NASCAR competition, says Racetrack Revival and the CARS Tour race on Wednesday night was a splendid success for the discipline.

And much of the gratitude should go to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for making it a reality.

After all, Earnhardt was the one who first rallied an eclectic group of industry insiders together to clean the facility up for an iRacing scan in December 2018. At the time, Earnhardt says he just wanted to selfishly preserve the track in digital form so he could race it online well after the track inevitably withered away.

It had sat largely prone for the past 25 years and was beginning to show the starting effects of becoming the most prominent Lost Speedway to date.

But Earnhardt also planted the seed in Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith’s head that maybe the industry had something more in his dormant facility and worked every step of the way to validate that conviction.

"I think Dale's platform, frankly, had a lot to do with it," Elliott said on Wednesday during NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day. "He talked about it on his podcast a lot and talked about how much he wanted to go run so it's been a narrative that's been in the making for a few years with him and I think that helped a ton.

"And then, anytime you have one individual like him who can make that big of a splash, that's a great thing. You just hope all those people who came out had a great experience and come back because keeping race tracks alive is about going more than once. It's about how you turn it into a spectacle every time. At the same time, not taking advantage of the fans too and that's a balance we have to be mindful of."

Around 20,000 fans showed up on Wednesday night for the Window World 125, a race that featured Earnhardt’s return to Late Model Stock competition for the first time since 1996. His teammate and full-time CARS Tour championship driver, Carson Kvapil won the race on a green-white-checkered that also featured Mason Diaz and Earnhardt battling for the win.

Earnhardt spent the final 10 laps of the race methodically charging through the top-10, the sold-out capacity crowd shaking the venerable facility to its core with every pass made by the two-time Daytona 500 winner.

To that point, Elliott says Earnhardt single-handedly gave North Wilkesboro a chance to return in a meaningful way.

"I thought it was amazing," Elliott said. "I really did. I think they should thank Dale a lot for making that a really really amazing spectacle for short track racing. I think the track needed that. I think the series needed that. I think our sport needed that just from a sense of what could be at even a short track race."

Elliott has done much of what Earnhardt has done at Wilkesboro, but for Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway over the past several years. The 2013 All-American 400 winner has long advocated that NASCAR should return to Downtown Nashville.

Again, with a push from Earnhardt, the 16-time most popular driver successfully lobbied Smith to pursue the lease to that city owned facility in the hopes that Cup could return there for the first time since 1984. Elliott did his part to prove that could be viable by selling out the 20,000-seat venue by entering the debut SRX race there last summer.

A deal to return NASCAR to Fairgrounds Speedway is pending approval from the local government.

Elliott says both stories are examples of what the Cup Series community can do to preserve and strengthen elements of history they care about -- and potentially make it a part of their collective future.

"It shows just how much influence we can have as a unit when we pull together to try to keep a race track alive or making it thrive," Elliott said. "Going from desperately someone wanting it to be a parking lot for a soccer stadium to one of, if not the best stop on our schedule, which is what I would think would happen if we visited the Fairgrounds in my opinion.

"It's really important to talk about these things and if you care about them, go out there and support it. For the fans too, it's more than just chiming in on Twitter and saying you agree. It's about going. You saw that when dad and I raced at Nashville and Wilkesboro with Dale.

"I thought it was a powerful statement for short track racing and for our sport."

Elliott previously won a Pro All Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway as a teenager in 2010. That was one of only two events the speedway hosted over the past 25 years since last hosing a Cup Series race in 1996 prior to Racetrack Revival this past month.

Last night brought forth a lot of powerful memories for the 2020 Cup Series champion.

"It was a long time ago, kind of crazy," Elliott said. "I was 13 or 14 at the time. I was young but I knew it was special but as I got older and then going through the process of watching last night and seeing how cool and fun that was to see and think back, 'yeah, we raced there' and went up that ramp, and how neat that was and how proud I am of that."

Regardless of whether NASCAR or the Cup Series ultimately returns to the foothills of the North Carolina High Country, Elliott was just pleased that a discipline he loves, Late Model racing, was able to enjoy the spotlight in a way that doesn't come around too often.

It was a meaningful moment for the CARS Tour and veteran short trackers throughout the field.

"I guarantee you, for every driver that was in that race last night, that was different, and it was more fun for them," Elliott said. "Anytime the energy level is up like that, it's more fun.

"It honestly is, and you can feel that. There have been a few events over my career that stand out more than others that have had incredible energy. I wish it was like that every week but you're going to have those special events like last night and those drivers will cherish and have them forever."