NASCAR Drivers Celebrate Uncertainty of North Wilkesboro Speedway

Getty Cup Series drivers practice at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

For the first time since 1996, the NASCAR Cup Series drivers will compete at North Wilkesboro Speedway. They don’t know how the Next Gen cars will handle the aged surface during the All-Star Race, but they are embracing the potential challenge.

The track surface is more than 40 years old, and it features several patches where the crews have made some repairs. This creates slick spots where drivers lose control, and it leads to considerable tire falloff. This should only further test the Cup Series drivers as they take on a track where they have no experience.

“The biggest benefit is that the engineers haven’t had time to figure it out yet or make it bad,” Corey LaJoie told media members on April 19. “When the engineers have a good, validated sim model or a good, validated track grip to figure out where the bumps are at, they make the cars drive considerably better so the gap between the comers and goers is a lot more.

“I think you’re going to see some guys with their setups skewed more toward short-run speed. Some guys skewed more toward long-run speed. I think you’re going to get some disparity there toward the back end of the run… 25 or 40 laps somewhere in that window, you’re going to see some guys fall off heavy and some guys hang on.”

LaJoie continued and explained that the Cup Series cars will be much slower than the Super Late Models that competed earlier in the week leading up to the exhibition event. The weight will play a significant role as will the time spent off-throttle.

“With the track being short, the leader might get to lap traffic a little quicker,” Chase Elliott added. “So that might be a good thing, especially when the bottom groove was certainly the place to be on Wednesday night. So if that’s the case again and you get to lap traffic and you have to start moving around, I could see that putting us in a good position to put on a good show.”

The Lack of Grip Creates Some Excitement

GettyErik Jones heads to the track for practice at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

One of the biggest complaints among the drivers in the first year-and-a-half of the Next Gen era was the amount of grip at short tracks. Denny Hamlin and other veterans have explained on multiple occasions that it was too easy for drivers to simply downshift in turns and take off. They have also talked about how the cars are “stuck” to the racing surface.

NASCAR made changes to the short tracks during the offseason. They lowered the downforce by 30 percent in the pursuit making the cars harder to drive. This move has helped at Richmond and Martinsville, but now it will have to do the same at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

The practice session on May 19 was a fitting example. Daniel Suarez lost control on the second lap of the 50-minute session, and he scraped the wall. Minutes later, Noah Gragson and Kyle Busch also had close calls as they came close to hitting the wall. Though they kept their Chevrolet Camaros moving in the right direction.

“I think the limited grip here really is interesting in a number of ways,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think two things stand out to me about it. One, it really favors itself to removing some of the aero stuff that we’ve had problems with as a whole, and I think that’s probably gonna be really good for us and put the racing a little bit more in the driver’s hands. And I think that feeds into the second part that stands out to me is how will the drivers adapt.

“The drivers have fallen into a routine of racing where the cars have been fairly easy to drive and I think generally when you go backwards we see a lot of spins and accidents and things like that when you go backwards on that grip knob. This is a step backwards on the grip knob, which is welcome by me at least and we’ll see what it does to the driver’s ability to find that limit without going too far and having a bunch of accidents.”

The Atmosphere Adds Something Extra

GettyNASCAR fans celebrate racing’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway.

The lack of grip and the unknowns surrounding North Wilkesboro Speedway have created excitement among the teams and drivers. It has also had an impact on the fans of stock car racing.

There were no races at the historic short track on May 19. The only action was Craftsman Truck Series practice, Cup Series practice, and the pit crew challenge that set the starting order for the All-Star Open and All-Star Heat Races.

The fans still flocked to the short track to take in the sights and sounds. This is something that the NASCAR drivers and teams saw and appreciated as they celebrated a festive first day.

“I grew up down the road, so as I touch some of these racetracks that I grew up and hearing stories about, it’s great,” William Byron said. “Stefan Parsons and I are really good buddies, and we grew up racing Legends cars. Every time we’d go to ski up in the mountains, we’d pass North Wilkesboro and he’d have a story about Benny or Phil racing here, and I was always kind of like, ‘I’ve never seen this place.’ I had only seen the sign outside as you go down the highway.

“It’s cool for me to see the place now and get some idea of all these historic places that I live right around. It’s just a different vibe when I get in the car to drive up here. I feel like I go back in time a little bit, and it makes me a fan again of what we do. I just think that’s cool versus going to … no offense to going to Kansas or somewhere, I love that place, but it doesn’t have a lot of history to me.”

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