RALEIGH, N.C. — NASCAR is returning to one of its original venues that it left more than a quarter-century ago — North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina native Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined the stock car body and the track’s owner Thursday to announce that the track will host the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race next year — NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.
“It’ll be something that people want to come from all over the country and enjoy – NASCAR All-Star week at North Wilkesboro Speedway – to enjoy the culture, the festivities, the history,” Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track, said at a news conference outside the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. “We’re excited to revive it.”
The .625-mile asphalt oval, located almost 70 miles northwest of Charlotte, hosted the year-ending race in 1949 for what became the Cup Series. It became an annual stop on the schedule, hosting two races a year starting in 1951, and was a throwback to the days when moonshine runners in the region — NASCAR legend Junior Johnson among them — drove fast cars to escape authorities.
North Wilkesboro hosted more than 90 Cup races before it closed in 1996, a result of NASCAR’s dramatic growth during that time and arguments that it wasn’t large or fancy enough as the sport tapped into new markets. The track’s races went to New Hampshire and Texas.
The oval went into disrepair, and non-NASCAR racing at the legendary track in the early 2010s fizzled. But former drivers like Earnhardt Jr., local boosters, and state officials wouldn’t give up on the venue, which has a direct connection to NASCAR’s birth.
A recent effort to renovate the speedway took off, buoyed by $18 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds earmarked by the North Carolina state legislature last year for infrastructure improvements.
The legislature has agreed in principle to provide another $4 million next year for additional improvements to host the race next May 21 and for “future events over the next several years,” said Greg Walter, general manager at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Speedway Motorsports’ flagship venue.
The All-Star Race originally began in 1985 as The Winston and was usually held in May the week before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s been held the past two years at Texas Motor Speedway, most recently won by Ryan Blaney.
While the North Wilkesboro decision was months in the making, Smith and NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell said the concept was confirmed just in recent weeks. That’s when standing-room-only crowds attended a “Racetrack Revival” series at the reopened track, spearheaded by Speedway Motorsports, Earnhardt and the widow of the late Benny Parsons. Ryan Newman won the first race, while Earnhardt was third in a race last week.
“I felt something at a race track that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. And it was the true joy and the love that you just have for being there, whether you’re a competitor or a fan,” said Earnhardt, a television analyst and NASCAR team owner. “It’s just got a special place in our history. And I’m so excited to see what can happen beyond this.”
O’Donnell said later it was too early to tell whether a successful All-Star Race could lead to annual race dates at the track, but “we wouldn’t be going back to North Wilkesboro if we didn’t think it would be successful and a place that we want to look to more than one year.”
O’Donnell acknowledged holding more races outside NASCAR’s strongholds in recent years to grow the sport has led to weighing choices. The 2023 season also will feature a new NASCAR street race in Chicago.
“As we’ve looked at evolving the schedule in the future, it’s certainly a nod to maybe new markets that we want to be in, but also balancing that with markets where people have been supporting us forever,” O’Donnell said. “You look at our 75th anniversary and the schedule that we’re putting together and it’s a perfect balance.”
Richard Petty won a record 15 NASCAR races at North Wilkesboro, which is known for its downhill slope on the front stretch and uphill back stretch. Darrell Waltrip won 10 races, followed by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Cale Yarborough with five each.
Cooper, sporting a North Wilkesboro Speedway jacket, was The Winston’s grand marshal in 2000, when the younger Earnhardt beat his dad and Dale Jarrett to the finish. The governor said the track, which he visited in May, “is almost like a cathedral.”
“This is a great day for North Carolina. Whether you care about racing or not, this means economic revival and more money in the pockets of everyday North Carolinians,” he said. “We are the birthplace of NASCAR.”
Georgia’s Bennett arrested for public intoxication
Former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to their second straight CFP National Championship earlier this month, was arrested on a misdemeanor public intoxication charge in Dallas on Sunday morning.
In a statement to ESPN, a Dallas Police Department spokesperson said officers responded to a report of a man banging on doors in the 1600 block of Tribeca Way at 7:10 a.m. ET on Sunday.
“The preliminary investigation found when officers arrived, they located the man, Stetson Bennett, 25, and determined he was intoxicated,” the police statement read. “Bennett was taken into custody, transported to the City Detention Center and charged with public intoxication.”
Bennett left the detention center Sunday morning, but he could not be reached for comment.
Bennett, who started his college career as a walk-on, was a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season, after leading the Bulldogs to a 15-0 record and SEC championship. He passed for 4,127 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for another 10 scores.
Bennett was named the offensive MVP in both of Georgia’s victories in the CFP, a 42-41 comeback win against Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a 65-7 rout of TCU in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T.
Bennett, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is considered a potential selection in April’s NFL draft. He recently won the Manning Award, which is given to the top quarterback in the FBS by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.
Shrout visited Arkansas State over the weekend and his commitment looms as a significant win for Butch Jones, who is entering his third season as Arkansas State’s head coach.
Shrout will graduate from Colorado this spring and plans to enroll at Arkansas State in May, according to sources. He has one year of eligibility remaining and potentially a second if he gets a medical redshirt after missing the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.
Shrout most recently played at Colorado in 2022, where he threw for 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions and delivered the game-winning touchdown pass against Cal in overtime in Colorado’s lone victory of the season. He started seven games at Colorado and had one start during his three seasons at Tennessee (2018-2020).
Shrout is one of three Buffaloes quarterbacks who have entered the NCAA transfer portal since the school hired Deion Sanders as head coach. Sanders has made it clear that his son, Shedeur, will be the starter next season. He introduced him at his opening news conference by saying, “This is your quarterback.”
According to sources, Shrout was attracted to the potential opportunity at Arkansas State, including playing in offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf’s West Coast-style offense. Shrout also had some teammates at Tennessee who played for Jones, and sources said the former teammates endorsed Jones both as a person and a coach.
Arkansas State (3-9) ranked No. 118 in total offense last season and No. 85 in scoring offense. The Red Wolves open the 2023 season at Oklahoma on Sept. 2.
Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal
Broncos owner Greg Penner and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh met last week in Ann Arbor to discuss Denver’s head-coaching position without any deal materializing, league sources told ESPN.
Although Harbaugh two weeks ago announced he was staying at Michigan, Penner did his due diligence and still traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with the coach in person, like he’s done with seven other candidates during the Broncos’ head-coaching search.
The follow-up conversations were part of the process for both Denver — led by Penner with general manager George Paton — and Harbaugh. The face-to-face meeting came after Harbaugh’s initial video interview with Denver, after which he pulled his name out of contention and reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan.
“I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families,” Harbaugh said in his statement Jan. 16. “My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don’t try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!”
The Broncos moved on as well, continuing their discussions with several other candidates. Denver has interviewed former Saints coach Sean Payton, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, former Stanford coach David Shaw, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and their own defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero.
Harbaugh now has met with the Vikings and Broncos in back-to-back years. While one source wondered how many more chances Harbaugh would get, another league source said “The league is likely to be interested in Jim as long as he is successfully coaching. He’s proven at every level including the NFL. That’s a hard resume to match.”
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