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Mission Accomplished at North Wilkesboro for Dale Jr

There is still much work to do but Earnhardt made a statement in the foothills this week.


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Racetrack Revived.

Frankly speaking, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is too modest to admit it, but the 20,000 strong - sold out to capacity crowd that packed North Wilkesboro Speedway for a CARS Tour race on Wednesday night is entirely to his credit.

It was the culmination of what we might call Phase I of his dream to revitalize and restore one of the original NASCAR crown jewels following a 25-year period where it largely sat dormant and at risk of being lost to the perils of time.

Earnhardt saw the writing on the wall five years ago when he rallied a group of industry insiders to clean-up the archaic and decrepit facility so it could be scanned for iRacing. At least then it could be preserved digitally before the remaining buildings crumbled and the weeds overpowered the ever-multiplying cracks to the racing surface.

Because an actual race was not even a remote possibility, at least in his mind, Earnhardt feared they were in a race against time itself.

"This all started with me trying to get this place scanned," Earnhardt said after the race on Wednesday night. "I was riding with Marcus (Smith) to Vegas very selfishly trying to get it scanned for myself just so I could race it on iRacing. I knew it would make a lot of other people happy, but I did it for me.

"This whole thing here, I was doing it for me, and I just wanted to race a Late Model. I had been procrastinating forever about doing it and just needed a good kick in the ass. I thought, 'okay if we put on a race at North Wilkesboro, there's no way I wouldn't do it,' so I backed myself into a corner.

"I knew everyone would enjoy it and have fun, but it was a little selfish agenda that drove all of it."

Everyone absolutely enjoyed it.

That Earnhardt didn’t win might even be for the best as it allowed for a max points day for winner Carson Kvapil, Earnhardt’s full-time CARS Tour driver at JR Motorsports and the current championship points leader. It might even keep Earnhardt hungry for more and whet the appetite for another start down the road.

"I’m proud of him winning, honestly, in the long term for his development," Earnhardt said. "We believe in him. I’d rather him get this kind of win to get his name out there."

But that the caution came out with three laps to go with Earnhardt running third gave the fans entirely what they paid for. Hope. In that moment, they believed anything was possible and expressed it by shaking the old grandstands and concrete bleachers to their last legs.

And really, that’s what Racetrack Revival this month represented, the hope that anything could happen in Phase II of the restoration project.

"Hopefully this track will have a future," Earnhardt said. "I would encourage everybody that wants to help this place survive think of it as a multi-use property. It cannot survive as simply as a race track. It needs to host concerts, festivals, holiday events. That's a realistic way for this place to survive and if it can survive that way, it can have racing.

"I think they can run the Truck Series here; they can run the Xfinity Series here and an All-Star Race. Further down the road, I don't see why we can't have the conversation about having a Cup race here. I don’t see how you can say no to that.

"When you have nights like this, it feels impossible, but maybe tomorrow it will feel more realistic. Because right here, standing here tonight, I feel like we can do anything here."

What the CARS Tour race proved is that this market would be willing to support a marquee event that featured star power -- the kind of star power that only the NASCAR Cup Series or its once biggest star could elicit.

From that standpoint, Earnhardt was responsible for validating that belief and conviction that this place had a future and was the reason Racetrack Revival even happened. His long-time driver and friend, moonlighting as a crew chief on Wednesday, said short track racing owes Earnhardt a great deal for his efforts leading up to this week.

"Dale deserves a lot of credit over how he's stuck it out and fought for this place," Berry said. "And really, how he supports all of short track racing. I think the world of Dale Jr. but coming here with him this week and seeing it through his eyes moves the needle so much further due to how he handles this with everything else he has in front of him."

Earnhardt is aware of how much he owes his lifestyle to the racing industry, but he has arguably given just as much back and continues to advocate for the things he believes in through his commentary, his race team and Dirty Mo Media.

"He could be doing anything else on a Wednesday night," Berry said. "He really wants this track, this series and our team to continue growing and he put his money where his mouth was. Like, he easily could have gotten to this point where the track was cleaned up and got racing back and not come here and raced. He did his part, but he wanted to race and wanted to make sure it worked. He did that."

Again, not that Earnhardt allows himself to accept that narrative, instead crediting the fans for never giving up on it and supporting Racetrack Revival this past month.

"No," Earnhardt said. "No. I'm sorry, but I don't. ... It don't make sense. I'll tell you what though, when I was standing here before the race was getting started and getting in the car, I wanted to cry because it was so emotional because every seat was filled, and I can't believe this happened.

"This place was forgotten about and anyone with a heartbeat on this planet was telling you 'you aren't bringing that place back. There are a lot of people that believed in it but not enough.

"Somehow, enough switches got flipped, enough fortunate things happened that here we are. I don't believe it. Getting in those cars and seeing the energy it felt exactly like what being here was like in 1990. You know what I mean? It felt like a Cup race was about to pop off with dad and Bodine. Darrell. All those guys. It was so cool."

And maybe, just maybe, after a night built on hope that the vision can now turn to a race with Busch and Larson. Chase. All those guys.

Wouldn’t that be cool too?