CONCORD, N.C. – This Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to North Wilkesboro Speedway. You read that correctly. Cup Series racing returns to the .625-mile short track for the first time since 1996.
The history of North Wilkesboro is a storied one for the sport’s top division. Opening in 1949 as a dirt track, the series began utilizing the short track in October of that year. The facility kept its dirt surface until 1957 when the track was paved over with asphalt. Cup Series competition remained at the track every year until 1996. Hendrick Motorsports won four races at North Wilkesboro, including a season sweep of the races in 1996. NASCAR Hall of Famer and team vice chairman Jeff Gordon won the last points-paying race there on Sept. 29.
Ultimately, recent efforts to revive the track have resulted in a return to competition. After grassroots races were successfully at the track in August of 2022, NASCAR took steps to bring the All-Star Race back to the historic venue. While the all-star event does not award points, the race winner does take home $1,000,000.
"I was really excited to see that," Kyle Larson said of when North Wilkesboro was added to the schedule as the fifth all-star host in the sport's history. "I am all about fun, unique events and getting back to the history of our sport in a really important thing. I have no idea how it is going to race but regardless I think it is a very, very good thing for our sport to go back to the track.
From a track standpoint, North Wilkesboro’s worn out, abrasive surface will lead to massive fall off in laps times. Properly manage your tires will be needed to find success in the All-Star Race. Another key issue that drivers will have to deal with are the difference in the turns. The frontstretch is on a slightly downhill angle while the backstretch is uphill. These slight variations can result in significant changes to the balance of the race car and will provide a challenge to a field that will have had no prior experience at the track in a Next Gen car.
"The whole layout of the place has that feel of kind of a Wrigley Field or just a historic place that has a newness to it. I'm excited for it," William Byron said after winning at Darlington Raceway on Sunday for his third win of the 2023 season.
RELATED: Breaking down the All-Star Race format
Larson is the most recent driver from Hendrick Motorsports to win the All-Star Race. During his 10-win season in 2021, the eventual Cup Series champion earned the all-star victory at Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy also won the playoff event at Texas in the same year, earning him a clean sweep at the 1.5-mile facility. He also won the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2019. Of note, Larson's two wins in 2023 have both come at the only short-track races (Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway).
During the 2020 season, the adjusted schedule from the COVID-19 pandemic saw the exhibition race head to Bristol Motor Speedway. At the end of the night, it was Chase Elliott that earned the $1 million payday. The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is the third-youngest winner in event history at 24 years, seven months and 17 days. Elliott won at North Wilkesboro in a late model in 2010 when he was 14 years old.
PHOTOS: See Hendrick Motorsports' winning history in the All-Star Race
Byron, who drives the No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, has a best finish of seventh in the All-Star Race (Texas 2021). He has won two stages in the All-Star Open to transfer into the main event that way. The 25-year-old is enjoying his best season with a series-leading three wins, 596 laps led and six stage victories. His victory at Darlington marked the 100th win for the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in the Cup Series.
Josh Berry will continue to fill in for Alex Bowman, who is out with a fractured vertebra suffered in a sprint car event in Iowa on April 25. Berry, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports affiliate JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, was the substitute driver for five of the races that Elliott missed earlier this season. Berry is not locked into the All-Star Race and will need to go through the All-Star Open to secure his spot in the main event. The top-two finishers in the Open will transfer to the main event.
Byron and Elliott logged laps in the ASA Stars National Series race at the track on Wednesday night, finishing second and third, respectively. Larson and Byron will each run the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race on Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio-Channel 90).
RELATED: Larson to fill in for Bowman in truck race | Byron to run three races with KBM
This weekend will also see the crews take center stage with the Pit Crew Challenge presented by Mechanix Wear on Friday. All pit crews (for teams in the All-Star Race and Open) will complete a four-tire pit stop (taking no fuel). The results of the pit stop time only will determine the starting lineups for both the All-Star Heat Races (more below) and the All-Star Open.
"It’s awesome to get to be able to show off the pit crew and have them where they are at the forefront," No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "That goes for those that are behind-the-wall who are at the track all weekend. They are a huge part of what goes over-the-wall. There’s a little bit on the car and the driver because they are going to get timed from one box away and one box leaving.
"It’s a little bit of everything. I like it. I know the fans are going to be excited about that and it should be fun."
Hendrick Motorsports has won the All-Star Race 10 times, which leads all organizations and is more than double of all the teams tied for second (at four wins). Five drivers have accounted for Hendrick Motorsports’ all-star victories, which is also the most among all teams. Jimmie Johnson leads the way with four wins (2003, 2006, 2012 and 2013), which is also the most among all drivers in all-star history. Gordon is next with three wins (1995, 1997 and 2001) and he is also the youngest winner of the event at 23 years, 9 months and 16 days. Labonte (1999), Elliott (2020) and Larson (2021) each have won the event once. The Johnson, Gordon and Labonte victories all came at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Here's what you need to know to catch this weekend's action.
WHAT TIME IS PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING?
The format for the All-Star race will be different than a normal race weekend. Read about the entire schedule here.
On-track action starts with a practice session on Friday, May 19, at 4 p.m. ET on FS1. The Pit Crew Challenge takes place on Friday, May 19, at 5:45 p.m. ET on FS1. For the Pit Crew Challenge, Berry will be the third car to go, Elliott will be the 11th, Larson will go 29th and Byron will be the 33rd driver to complete a stop.
The drivers already locked into the All-Star Race will be in one of the two 60-lap heat races starting will take part in one of two heat races, on Saturday, May 20, starting at 7:20 p.m. ET on FS1 with the second heat at 8:15 p.m. ET. The results of the first heat will set the inside row for the All-Star Race, while the results of the second heat will set the outside row for the All-Star Race.
WHAT TIME IS THE RACE?
The festivities will begin on Sunday, May 21, with the 100-lap All-Star Open at 5:30 p.m. ET on FS1. Following the Open, the 200-lap main event will begin at 8 p.m. ET with coverage also available on FS1.
CAN I LISTEN ON THE RADIO?
Cup Series events will be on MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).
CAN I STREAM ONLINE?
Yes. Download the FOX Sports Live app for online coverage. Fans can also keep up with the action on Twitter by following @TeamHendrick.
WHAT CHANNEL IS FS1 AND FS2?
It varies by location, but this link allows viewers to find the channels by entering their zip code and selecting their television provider.
FIVE FAST FACTS HEADING INTO NORTH WILKESBORO
Data provided by Racing Insights
5: Five different tracks have hosted the All-Star Race. They are Charlotte Motor Speedway (1985, 1987-2019), Atlanta Motor Speedway (1986), Bristol Motor Speedway (2020), Texas Motor Speedway (2021-2022) and now North Wilkesboro Speedway (2023).
7: The Hendrick Motorsports driver that won the All-Star Race has gone on to win the Cup Series championship seven times, including in the years of its last three all-star victories. Gordon’s three all-star wins in 1995, 1997 and 2001 came in title seasons. Johnson’s wins in 2006 and 2013 were during championship years. More recently, Elliott (2020) and Larson (2021) won this event ahead of their championship coronations.
20: All four entries from Hendrick Motorsports have made the All-Star Race 20 times, including 19 of the last 21 years. *Note: The 2023 race is not included in this count as Berry has to advance through the Open in the No. 48 Ally Chevy.
24: Over the past 24 seasons, including this one, Hendrick Motorsports has had at least three cars in the All-Star Race. That streak is more than double than that of the next closest team (at 11 seasons).
845: Hendrick Motorsports' 845 laps led in this event are the most among all teams.