It was only fitting that the final NASCAR Winston Cup event at North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the most competitive races in the storied history of the five-eighths mile oval located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Jeff Gordon won the Tyson Holly Farms 400 on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 29, 1996, as a standing-room-only crowd saw 18 lead changes among eight drivers.
Gordon, who started alongside polesitter Ted Musgrave, said he picked up a few tips from Dale Earnhardt that helped him beat the black No. 3 to the checkered flag by 1.73 seconds.
“We swapped the lead around and I noticed he was running a higher line than my line,” said the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. “I adjusted my line a little bit to see if I could adjust to his line. I was searching for a way to save my tires. Dale is great at this place and being able to follow him helped.”
Earnhardt settled for second with Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Terry Labonte rounding out the top five. Interestingly, all 37 starters were still running at the end of the race.
Enoch Staley opened North Wilkesboro Speedway as a dirt track on May 18, 1947, and it hosted the finale of the inaugural NASCAR Strictly Stock season on Oct. 16, 1949. The track was paved in 1957 and became a mainstay on the NASCAR schedule.
But by the mid-1990s, the track’s NASCAR Winston Cup dates had become more valuable than the facility itself. Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre eventually bought the track and moved its Cup races. The spring race went to Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway while the fall event moved to Bahre’s New Hampshire Int’l Speedway.
Prior to North Wilkesboro Speedway’s final race, officials received threatening letters and telephone calls, and the Wilkes County Sheriff’s Department beefed up security when word spread there might be demonstrations.
Reportedly, the sheriff’s department advised Smith not to attend the race because they had received threats on his life.
But the race ran without incident.
“We had a few fans carrying signs, but they didn’t present a problem. I think for the most part everybody had a good time, and everybody was orderly,” said a Wilkes County sheriff’s deputy. “Everybody up here hates losing Winston Cup racing, but I think everybody realizes there isn’t much we can do about it but cry.”
North Wilkesboro Speedway sat idle for 13 years before racing returned in 2010 under new leadership.