NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at North Wilkesboro Speedway to practice Tuesday in preparation for his return to Late Model racing on Wednesday.
The 26-time NASCAR Cup Series winner wants to make a return to driving at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2023.
Since retiring from full-time racing, Earnhardt usually runs one race per year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for sponsor Hellman’s Mayonnaise. He mentioned the sponsor wants him to choose a track in the Southeast and it’s his choice to go to BMS, where he swept the weekend in 2004 with a win in the Food City 250 for Xfinity and the Bristol Night Race for the Cup Series.
“I love the high banks of Bristol. When I was a little boy and watched dad race, out of all the races when I was a kid, the Bristol Night Race was the one I didn’t want to miss,” he said. “It’s just electric there and I would beg dad to go to that race. I love short tracks and raced Martinsville last year. We really haven’t sat down with Hellman’s and talked about it, but it’s on the top of my list.”
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and two-time Xfinity Series champion, was named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2022. The 47-year-old said there might be interest in racing more short tracks, but he’s busy in roles as the owner of the JR Motorsports, an analyst for NBC Sports, host of the popular “Dale Jr. Download” podcast and other special projects.
While knowledgeable about Bristol with a Cup record that includes eight top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 35 starts, NASCAR’s Next Gen car is a great unknown. Still, Earnhardt believes the racing will be as extreme as ever for the upcoming weekend — which culminates with the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Sept. 17.
“The Bristol Night Race is always intense. You have that Friday night, Saturday night short-track feel,” Earnhardt said. “Most of the drivers came up as short track racers, so you have the beating and banging.
“It’s fun to see and that’s what I hope we get with guys muscling each other around. Being it’s a cut-off race, it’s probably going to get physical at the end of that race.”
RETURN TO LATE MODELS
His immediate focus was on the No. 3 Sun Drop Chevrolet Late Model at North Wilkesboro. Earnhardt finished 20th in a Late Model race at the unique 5/8-mile oval track in 1993.
It was a return to his roots for Earnhardt, who started in Street Stocks and Legends cars before moving up to the Late Model division. He got the ball rolling on racing coming back to North Wilkesboro when he and a crew of volunteers came to weed-eat and clean up the place for an iRacing scan.
His enthusiasm quickly transferred to Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith. Earnhardt was able to do some testing and attend races as a spectator in the weeks prior to Tuesday’s practice. He was surprised by the number of fans and campers at the track.
“Today is overwhelming. We came here and tested and the short track looked great,” Earnhardt said. “That was a fun day, but no one was here. We came back for the Modified race as a fan with no stress of driving or racing. That was fun with so many people here. To see so many people here for practice and qualifying, it has exceeded all expectations with the excitement for it.”
Asked why getting North Wilkesboro up and running again was so important, Earnhardt referred to comments by Late Model racer Landon Huffman. Both have a shared interest in seeing the historic track, which first opened in 1947, succeed.
“Landon said it the best about when you visited the track over the last two decades, it was like it was speaking to you,” Earnhardt said. “It was like there’s still some value to the motorsports community and like there’s something left. We’re seeing that come true today.
“It can be a big asset to this community, not just racing, but festivals and all these multi-use events.”