Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In the Rearview Mirror: NASCAR returns to Rockingham

The No. 18 of Jason Leffler tests at Rockingham in preparation for the April 15th race.
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR 
"I'm so proud to say that NASCAR is coming back to The Rock."

It was last September when Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenberg spoke those words that were music to race fans' ears. Rockingham Speedway, aka "The Rock," last felt the roar of NASCAR engines in 2004, an amazing race where Matt Kenseth won beating a then-rookie Kasey Kahne.


As "The Rock" returns to action this Sunday hosting the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 presented by Cheerwine, Kahne decided to return to the the Truck Series racing the No. 4 for Turner Motorsports.

"As soon as I heard that NASCAR was adding the Rockingham truck race to the schedule, I wanted to run it,” said Kahne, who will compete for his fourth NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win in five career starts. "I think it is great for the sport and the fans that we are going back to Rockingham."

Kahne's sentiment is shared throughout the garage area. Drivers are excited to return to Rockingham Speedway. 

After an early-March tire test, Jason Leffler, driver of the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota said, "Testing has gone really smooth. So far the truck has run great, so I'm just looking forward to coming back and seeing 35 other trucks out here racing hard." 

In the same test session, Timothy Peters shared the same excitement for the upcoming race. "It's going to make for great action for the fans. The tire that they've given us is good, and we've been running it through different scenarios. You're going to see people on the bottom, middle and top. It's going to be awesome."

Asked on Twitter what he thinks of returning to Rockingham, Ty Dillon replied "can't wait. I won my first race there in the ARCA series so I'm anxious to get back on the track."

It seems unanimous that drivers are just as anxious as the fans to get back and race at Rockingham, one of NASCAR's elite tracks.

History of The Rock

Originally named North Carolina Motor Speedway, "The Rock" made its NASCAR debut as a flat, one-mile oval on October 31, 1965, in the American 500, a 500-lap event won by Curtis Turner. Just four years later in 1969, the track was extensively reconfigured to a high-banked, D-shaped oval measuring slightly over one mile in length.

In its history, the Rockingham track hosted two races, the first of which was traditionally the second race on the NASCAR schedule, held one week after the Daytona 500. The second race was held in November in what would now be considered as the Chase.

Drivers who have conquered "The Rock" include: Richard Petty, Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Kyle Petty just to name a few.

Memorable moments at "The Rock"
  • 1973 - David Pearson led all but one lap on his way to an overwhelming victory during the Carolina 500. In the 1973 season Pearson claimed a total of 11 wins in only 18 starts driving the iconic No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing.
  • 1979 - Just after their Daytona battle, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed battling for the lead only ten laps into the race, collecting several others cars. Winning the race was none other than Bobby Allison. 
  • 1985 - For the second time in Rockingham history, the race ended in a photo finish as Neil Bonnett edged out Harry Gant for the win. 
  • 1989 - Rusty Wallace came from a lap down to win the race as leaders Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd tangled on the backstretch.
  • 2001 - Just one week following the death of Dale Earnhardt, DEI driver Steve Park scored  an emotional win for the team, which turned out to be Park's final victory in NASCAR.  
  • 2002 - Matt Kenseth ended his two-year long drought by escaping a multi-car melee as Jeff Gordon spun out Casey Atwood, collecting others as well.
  • 2004 - The final Rockingham race! Matt Kenseth edged out rookie Kasey Kahne for the win (as featured in the video above) 
The Demise and Revival of Rockingham 

The downfall of Rockingham can be attributed to many causes: lack of attendance. In the 60,000-seat track about 10,000 seats were empty, but that simply was not the full cause of the demise.

As part of track mergers and acquisitions, International Speedway Corp. (ISC) took ownership of Rockingham in 1999. In 2004, ISC made the decision to remove the fall race from Rockingham's schedule, moving that race to California. Later embroiled in a lawsuit and a continued attendance decline ISC sold the track to Speedway Motors Inc. who took the lone remaining race and moved it to Texas. 

In October of 2007 SMI put Rockingham on the auction block and Andy Hillenberg, a former driver and car owner in the ARCA RE/MAX Series bought it. Within hours of the sale closing, Hillenberg was making deals to resume racing at "The Rock."

In August of 2011, Rockingham began installing SAFER barriers and rumors began flying that NASCAR would return. Hillenberg confirmed just a short time later that the NASCAR Camping Wide Truck Series is the first series to return to "The Rock."

Reliving all these Rockingham moments has me pumped. Drop the green and let's go racing!

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