NASCAR drivers excited by North Wilkesboro Speedway’s slick track, nostalgic feel

The last time Chris Buescher was here was December 2019 — a cold and misty day when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a documentary crew and a handful of other volunteers were cleaning up the icon-turned-eyesore that was North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Buescher remembers it well.

“The last time we were here, we had lunch, and it was about 30 degrees and misty, and half the garage was falling down on top of itself, and we decided to go in there anyway,” the driver said with a smile. He then looked around. “It’s a little nicer now.”

Buescher was one of three NASCAR Cup Series drivers to participate in a tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Tuesday evening. That meant he drove his No. 17 Ford Cup car around the 0.625-mile track a bunch of times — recording data for his team and tire engineers to evaluate, yes, but also getting an early idea for what this racetrack will feel like when the NASCAR All-Star Race descends here on May 21.

The All-Star Race will mark the first NASCAR event the racetrack has hosted since 1996.

“It’s still keeping a lot of the same flair and feel to it,” Buescher told reporters after his run. “I hope that a lot of it stays. I see a lot of the newer stuff that’s made to look nostalgic as well. I like that. I hope a lot of the stuff that is rusty and chalky stays with us for the race because I think fans will really enjoy coming to see it in person.”

Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick joined Buescher at the track Tuesday.

They all essentially reported the same thing: So much of Wilkesboro has been renovated since construction began in September and really took off in the winter — but the track still hasn’t been repaved and has its fair share of unique qualities that make it difficult to race.

In other words: It’s a driver’s dream.

“You’re kind of on ice skates taking off, for sure,” Reddick said. “This place has got a lot of age and character to it. You’re having to pedal it pretty good. The first lap, you kind of have to be careful squeezing the gas down, and as you run, it’s hard to get back to wide-open throttle. ...

“But one little misstep or miscue into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car. That’s with no traffic, no mistakes. So maybe with more traffic the fall-off will be more, so certainly we’re out of control from really Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car.”

Dillon agreed, and added that the slight elevation change going into Turn 1 — a slight downhill run — will pose more welcomed challenges to Cup drivers in late May.

“It was slick out there, really had to take care of your tires,” Dillon said. “It just feels good to be close to home at a short track that is slick and that you really have to take care of your tires. Speed wasn’t everything today. It was more about taking care of your tires and seeing where the fall-off was. ... It was more about making the car like the track. We used every minute of our time.”

Dillon added: “To me, with all the work that’s going into here, we’re not just coming here for one race. We’re coming here for a while. So I’m excited about that.”

Tuesday was also another early chance these drivers had to test out the Next Gen car’s new short-track package, one that features 30% less downforce to promote more passing and generally better racing.

Buescher weighed in on what he learned.

“The speeds are fairly slow just because of the (little) amount of grip here,” Buescher said. “It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight. There’s a challenge to just hitting a turn. The shifting for the most part seemed to just go away. There’s not enough grip to use the RPM, which is something I think all the drivers have been excited about — trying to figure out how to get rid of shifting — and pretty sure that’s the case here right now.

“That’s an exciting part for me, to not have something that instantly recovers mistakes. I think that’ll help make better racing. So when you do move out of the groove, you can’t just drop a gear and re-accelerate and recover from it.”

A new hospitality area is being erected just above Turn 4. Grandstands facing Turn 3 have been put in where the rusted “Junior Johnson Grandstand” sign stood purpose-less for a generation. Pit road is paved. The new version of this racetrack is fitted with adequate fiber infrastructure technology and towering LED lights — operated by an iPad.

North Wilkesboro Speedway will soon be equipped for the future.

And drivers are thankful it is a part of their present.

“I’m sure I was running around, doing something, as a kid up here,” Dillon said, recounting memories he had of when his father, Mike Dillon, regularly visited North Wilkesboro Speedway as a driver. “More just driving by it as a kid. Going into the mountains and seeing this ghost of a track that you hear about from your family, and all of the good times that were had here.

“And now we’re getting to experience it. It’s coming to life fast. And it’s cool to be a part of it.”