NASCAR ready for return to ‘The Rock’
After an eight-year absence, NASCAR will return to ‘The Rock’ on Sunday, April 15.
Rockingham Speedway, formerly North Carolina Speedway, will host the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 15, marking the first NASCAR-sanctioned race there since Feb. 22, 2004.
Some of Lake Norman’s best drivers are more than excited about going back.
Rookie Cale Gale, 27, drives the No. 33 Rheem Chevy for Denver’s Eddie Sharp Racing and finished eighth in the USAR Pro Cup Series championship race in November 2011 at Rockingham. But Sunday will mark his first career series start there.
“The history of the race track, it’s what made NASCAR, tracks like Rockingham,” Gale said. “It’s been a while and to have that feeling of bringing the truck series back, it’s going to be great.”
NASCAR will make its return to Rockingham thanks in large part to track owner Andy Hillenburg, who bought the speedway in 2007 for $4.4 million. Hillenburg funded the installation of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barriers, part of a $1 million overall upgrade to the speedway.
“There’s some nervous excitement in the air,” said Hillenburg, who finished 34th in the final Rockingham race in 2004. “It’s been a long time since NASCAR’s been here, and I’m very proud to be leading the charge. It’s been a lot of work, but I don’t see it as work. I think of it as a labor of passion.”
The track means a lot to many drivers, not just because of the competition.
“I actually went there to watch my first ever (Sprint) Cup race,” said Mooresville resident Timothy Peters, who has three wins and 48 top 10s during his eight-year career in the series.
Peters, second in series points, drives the No. 17 Toyota for Mooresville’s Red Horse Racing.
“I’m really looking forward to the series heading back there. I know the fans are ready for it,” he said.
Though Rockingham served as one of NASCAR’s most history-laden tracks from its opening in 1965 to the final race in 2004, many in the Camping World Truck Series have never competed there in a NASCAR race.
James Buescher, 22, ranks sixth in the series standings and was just 13 at the time of Rockingham’s last NASCAR race.
“I don’t really have many memories of the old races there, but I think I’m ready for it,” said Buescher, who drives for Mooresville’s Turner Motorsports.
Though he’s one of the younger drivers on the circuit, Buescher likes his chances at “The Rock.” He scored a sixth-place finish there in 2008 while driving on the CARS Pro Cup Series and participated in a tire test in March.
“I think I pretty much have as many laps and experience as anyone out here in trucks,” Buescher said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Gale said he might look for advice from series veteran Todd Bodine, who has two wins and 13 career top 10s in the Nationwide Series at the 1-mile oval.
Gale will also keep teammate Justin Lofton close by.
Lofton needed a third-place finish or better in the season finale of the 2009 ARCA Racing Series at Rockingham to lock up the championship. He qualified a less-than-desirable 41st but drove his way to finish third to take the title.
“Definitely a lot of good memories there for me,” Lofton said. “It’s a very tricky track, and it won’t surprise me a bit if everyone’s scratching their head a bit.”
Gale, like Buescher, Peters and Lofton, said tire management will be a key to winning the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 presented by Cheerwine.
“I think Rockingham is known for the race track’s character and tire management,” Gale said. “It’s an old surface, and the tires wear out really quickly. I think that will also produce some great racing. You won’t see just one truck dominate the whole afternoon.”
While managing tires might be the first thing on everyone’s mind when Sunday afternoon rolls around, Peters is focused on a larger goal.
“Winning there would be awesome,” Peters said. “When you win and get your name engraved on the rock, that’s really cool.”
Did you know?
Fifteen NASCAR Sprint Cup champions won races at Rockingham, led by Richard Petty, who won 11 times. Ten Rockingham winners are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame: drivers Petty, Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and David Pearson; car owners Junior Johnson, Bud Moore and Glen Wood; and crew chief Dale Inman.