North Wilkesboro Still Presents Unique Challenges After Repave

By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. – One year after the successful return of North Wilkesboro Speedway to the NASCAR Cup Series as host of the All-Star Race, the track received yet another facelift. The pavement, laid down in the 1980s, is gone, replaced by a fresh coat of asphalt, presenting a new set of challenges to drivers, some that have the advantage of track time in a Goodyear Racing tire test.

Goodyear held a tire test on the ‘race ready asphalt’ on Tuesday March 12 for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The Cup Series hit the track on Wednesday March 13 and continued on Thursday, March 14. The tests were in preparation for May’s Wright Brand 250 and NASCAR All-Star Race.

Along with the new pavement, one minor change to the track was made, adjusting back the inside pit wall that Noah Gragson infamously hit in the All-Star Open last year. Halfway into the race, Gragson clipped the inside wall entering Turn 1 in his No. 42 Sunseeker LEGACY Motor Club Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The contact sent him directly up the track, collecting several Todd Gilliland, Ryan Newman, and Chandler Smith in the process. Though it ended his chances at winning the All-Star Open, Gragson transferred into the All-Star Race via the fan vote.

“The wall that I destroyed last year (is gone),” Gragson joked, who will attempt this year’s All-Star Race for Stewart-Haas Racing in the No. 10 Ford Mustang. “I ran the Late Model race there and I wanted to be like super close, but I don’t know why I did the same thing. I’ve been having a bad habit of (cutting the corner too close at) Pensacola (Five Flags Speedway), is kind of the same way where it has an inside wall and this past year I was trying to like peek out to the left when you’re squared up behind someone.

“It’s hard to see, so I peeked out, left at Pensacola in the Snowball Derby, and I also peeked out left at North Wilkesboro and killed the left side so. That wasn’t very good by any means, but (I’m) just trying to work on that. I’ve had most of the tracks growing up racing that I’d never hit the inside wall very much, but it’s happened twice in the past year or so. I don’t know why that has happened.

“Maybe I just need to think a little bit more in those situations. But when you’re right behind someone, it’s hard to get a gauge on where you’re at when you got cars to your outside and then the inside wall on the inside. But I guess it’s a good thing they’re kind of tapering it back a little bit now.” 

However, the characteristics of the track still remain. The unique shape of the track is intact, including the downhill frontstretch and uphill backstretch.

Bumps entering Turn 1 and exiting Turn 4 caught two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano’s attention. The Team Penske driver was appreciative of the challenge that the history speedway presents.

“They (Speedway Motorsports) did good job, there’s still some character is still unique shape to racetrack, which is all good,” explained Logano. “There’s a pretty big bump down into Turn 1 and I think where the wall was out too long, and they cut it. It’s an interesting area and there’s a huge bump exiting Turn 4, which really upsets the cars. I don’t think that’s bad. I’m okay with that.

“That’s something that made this racetrack so cool in the past is that it had a lot of character, bumpy, and you’re forced to move around them because it was challenging. You make the thing like glass, I don’t know if that really makes racing better, so I think the fact that it’s got a couple bumps and some areas where your drivers they make mistakes and jump out of the group and do different things. It’s just going to promote passing. That’s a good thing.” 

The track time, even for a Goodyear Racing tire test, allows the Cup drivers that participated in the test, Logano, William Byron, and Ty Gibbs, to get a grasp on the challenges that North Wilkesboro presents.

For the Daytona 500-winning driver and team, it allows them to work on their short track package.

North wilkesboro speedway still presents the nascar cup series drivers challenges despite the repaved surface.
March 13, 2024: Tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Wilkesboro, NC (Photo by Harold Hinson/Harold Hinson Photography)

“It’s an advantage for us of where we are with our team because I feel like we’ve been really wanting desperately to work on these tracks, so this lines up really well for us, albeit repave a lot of grip,” said Byron. “All those things you still can figure out if you can find some more grip and find some things characteristics in your car that that would help you.

“I think for us it’s a very important test. We have a lot of speed on the mile-and-half tracks, less speed on road courses last year, Phoenix (Raceway) was just okay for us. This is a test comes at a really good time for us to improve.” 

Much like Christopher Bell’s strength at Phoenix following participation in the NASCAR test at the track in December, Corey Heim was strong last year at the Wilkes County, N.C. after participating in the tire test one year ago. The TRICON Garage driver once again was part of the tire test and noted the strength all of those that tested last year had in the Truck race at the 0.625-mile track in 2023.

“(Track time) is huge,” said Heim. “I mean, especially last year when the track was so technical, I found that track time was crucial. The 42 (Carson Hocevar), 38 (Zane Smith), and us were the three testers last year and we were, barring track position, the best trucks I thought throughout the day. 

“This year, I think track time won’t be as important since the track is pretty straightforward, but any track time you get anywhere in a truck’s huge. I was working on some stuff with braking that I needed to work on for short tracks and stuff that may not apply here but apply other places. It’s just it’s just crucial.” 

The other two drivers from the Truck Series that were a part of the test were McAnally-Hilgemann’s Christian Eckes and ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes. The two-time Truck champion recognized how much the track changed from the start fresh pavement at the start of the day to a more rubbered-in track by the end of their day of testing.

While the amount of Goodyear tire rubber on the track made the racing surface different, it forced Rhodes and his team to chase the track, making changes as the track changed.

“(Track time)’s huge, I mean, we unloaded like garbage,” explained Rhodes. “If we were to unload, we (want to) put our best foot forward. And if we were to unload like that, we would be probably like 20th for the race weekend. I know we get a 50-minute [practice], but we would have had to really make some tough decisions very quickly, and we may have ended up in the same place. You’re doing more guesswork at that point.

“We were able to more methodically run through those changes. That was better, and the benefit of running at a new track with zero rubber on it is they give you the time to rubber in the track. So, we make changes as we’re [laying rubber onto] the track to try to make ourselves better. Now, obviously, at the end of the day, the track was totally different than how we started. But it still put us in the ballpark. And then at the end of the day, Goodyear is able to get their data, which is good.” 

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