CONCORD, N.C. – The last time that North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted a NASCAR Cup Series
race, the driver celebrating in victory lane that day was Jeff Gordon.
At the .625-mile track on Sept. 29, 1996, Gordon had the dominating car that day. He led 207 laps to win what was the final points-paying race at the venue located in North Carolina. That was his 10th and final win of the season (it was also the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for Gordon). He was locked in a tight championship battle with teammate Terry Labonte, who would ultimately win the title by 37 points.
While he was able to win the final race (at the time) at North Wilkesboro, Gordon had gotten off to a tough start at this particular track with two early incidents taking him out of both races in his rookie season of 1993. Over time, the driver of the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet found his footing around the venue. In the final four races he ran at North Wilkesboro, Gordon had one win, two runner-up finishes and no finish outside of the top three.
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"A lot of the great drivers – (Dale) Earnhardt, Rusty (Wallace), Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Richard (Petty) and Darrell (Waltrip) – that was a track that they excelled at," Gordon told HendrickMotorsports.com of North Wilkesboro. "If you wanted to win a championship, you needed to be able to run well at those types of tracks.
"After the first two years and especially going into 1995 – the year we won our first championship – it was high on our list of checking off the box because it is so challenging, so difficult and we had done so poorly there. We sat on the pole there in 1995 (and finished second in the spring). Then, they announced the final season of North Wilkesboro in 1996. That was huge motivation for us. We’ve got to get this done. The urgency is there and we did."
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Ahead of this weekend’s NASCAR All-Star Race, which will be North Wilkesboro's first Cup Series event in 27 years, the four-time series champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer reflected on driving at this track. He also likened it a bit to the series’ last stop, Darlington.
"They basically just poured this racetrack with the topography of the landscape, so that is why you have this downhill front straightaway," Gordon said of North Wilkesboro. “When you are looking at it, it might not feel significant. When you are driving, it is significant. Back in those days with the amount of grip that we had, it was hard on brakes trying to get into turn one. You couldn’t get the car to do what you really wanted.
"This is like a short-track version of Darlington minus the banking (Darlington has). The way you drive the ends of the track are completely different. It has similarities to that as well as similarities to the abrasiveness of the surface where the tires go away pretty fast. New tires are going to be huge."
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In his role as vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon is focused on the organization’s competition groups. What advice would he give to the team’s drivers – Josh Berry, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson – for this weekend?
"My advice going in is to just get ready to have an egg underneath your pedals," Gordon said. "You have to be so careful to throttle to keep the tires hooked up. You have to be real patient into (turn) one. Be aggressive into (turn) three. Trying to work on getting rear grip into the car is going to be pretty important because the drive off the corners was the most important thing that we used to have to deal with.
"I think they are going to like the racing. It puts things back into the mechanics and the drivers’ hands."
Tune in to watch the all-star festivities on Sunday, May 21, starting with the All-Star Open at 5:30 p.m. ET. That will be followed by the main event, the All-Star Race at 8 p.m. ET. Both events will be covered on FS1, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.