In front of a completely sold out crowd at the recently revived North Wilkesboro Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged to third in the closing laps of the CARS Tour’s Window World 125, thrilling fans as JR Motorsports driver Carson Kvapil took the checkered flag. It marked Earnhardt’s first late model stock car race since 1997, and his first at North Wilkesboro since 1995.
Driving a green No. 3 Sun Drop Chevrolet, a throwback paint scheme to the late model that he drove in the early 1990s, Earnhardt qualified sixth and settled in to running in and around the top 10. But midway through the race, he sustained some damage to his right rear quarter panel when he was caught up in a three-wide battle for position between himself, Jared Fryar, and Mini Tyrell.
After getting his damage fixed under controlled pit stops, Earnhardt’s car came to life throughout the final 37 lap run, and he made it all the way up to third with the fastest car on the racetrack — to the rousing approval of North Wilkesboro’s crowd — before a late caution for a spin by Connor Mosack gave Earnhardt a shot at the victory on a two lap run to the checkered flag.
In the end, it would be Carson Kvapil — a JR Motorsports late model driver and the son of former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil — capping off a dominant performance by taking the checkered flag, with Mason Diaz edging Earnhardt for second. Jonathan Shafer and Bobby McCarty rounded out the top five.
After the race, Earnhardt joined Kvapil in taking a “Polish Victory Lap” around North Wilkesboro, saluting the crowd before joining his young driver in Victory Lane.
“We had a rub on the right rear midway through the night. That made the car way loose, so when I needed to go forward, I couldn’t,” Earnhardt told Racing America. “And we were stuck there with the car sideways, right rear was cooked. And then we put the right sides on it, man, and I just said ‘It’s time to go.’
“We drove up through there, we just run out of a little time.”
As the winning car owner, Earnhardt heaped praise upon Kvapil, who started from the pole in a deep 30-car field and commanded much of the race. Kvapil, who turned 18 in May, earned his third victory of the 2022 season and currently leads the CARS Tour points standings.
“Carson’s the next real deal, man,” Earnhardt said. “He’s a heck of a driver. Total package, great kid. We’re proud of him tonight. It’s a big win for him.”
Earnhardt has been an integral figure in the resurrection of North Wilkesboro Speedway, which recently re-opened after being shut down for a quarter century following the historic western North Carolina short track’s last NASCAR Cup Series event in 1996. And his very presence in the field on Wednesday night created an atmosphere that rivaled a Cup Series race: The grandstands were completely sold out, and traffic trying to enter the speedway was so overwhelming that the start of the race had to be moved up to accommodate fans trying to get in.
As Earnhardt made his way to the front, the crowd made themselves both seen and heard. And Earnhardt took a moment to address them in his Victory Lane comments.
“Y’all made this a big, special deal. I hope you enjoyed what you saw, and we’re gonna try to keep this ‘ole racetrack goin’,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been fun this week.”
Wednesday marked the second race of any kind for Earnhardt in 2022, continuing a pattern of one-off appearances he has made behind the wheel since retiring from the Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season. In April, Earnhardt finished 11th in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Martinsville Speedway.