ROCKINGHAM — With a newly paved surface on the mile-long main oval track, there are hopes that NASCAR soon will bring the Cup Series back to Rockingham Speedway for the first time in nearly two decades.
If NASCAR hadn’t left, crews would be on their way to the Rock for the second race of the season following the Daytona 500.
Formerly North Carolina Motor Speedway (and North Carolina Speedway), the track hosted its first Cup Series race in 1965, which was won by Curtis Turner.
From 1966-2003, Thunder Alley roared twice a year with a race early in the season (usually either February or March) and a second later in the fall (October or November).
Richard Petty holds the record for most checkered flags at Rockingham with 11 Cup Series wins, followed by Cale Yarborough with seven, according to RacingReference.info.
However, Mark Martin is king of the Rock with 14 total victories: two in the Cup Series; 11 in the Xfinity Series (formerly Busch Series); and one in the K&N Pro Series.
The final Cup Series race was in 2004, with Matt Kenseth winding up in the winner’s circle, and Jamie McMurray snagging his fourth consecutive Xfinity win at the Rock.
During Andy Hillenburg’s tenure as owner, the track hosted five races in the ARCA Menards Series — book-ended with wins from Joey Logano and Ty Dillon — from 2008-2010; as well as five races in the X-1R Pro Cup Series which included a victory for Chase Elliot, from 2008-2011.
The K&N Pro Series returned in 2012 after a 20-year absence with one race won by Tyler Reddick.
Rockingham also held the Polar Bear 150 in 2009 and 2010, with Chuck Barnes Sr. grabbing the checkered flag both times.
NASCAR returned to the Rock for the Craftsman (formerly Camping World) Truck Series with races in 2012 and 2013, won by Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, respectively.
The track was closed from 2014 until 2021 and has since hosted a few small-tier car, truck and rig races in addition to drifting, monster truck and other events.
If NASCAR is to return to the Rock, which has been a favorite of both drivers and fans, the question remains: When?
Fitting Rockingham onto the schedule would require pulling a date from another track.
Using the 2023 NASCAR schedule as a guide, the RO has come up with several dates, taking both the weather and proximity to other races into consideration.
The first weekend in April is one possibility — following the event at Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, Texas — currently held by Richmond Raceway. The two races that follow are at Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.
The next choice would be the first weekend in May, a date currently held by Kansas Speedway. That date would keep NASCAR in the Carolinas the entire month, with the following races at Darlington Raceway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
North Wilkesboro, like Rockingham, is experiencing a revival and was placed on this year’s schedule to host the All-Star Race.
The third option, the second weekend in September, would also pull a race from Kansas and be book-ended by Darlington and Bristol — and be during the playoffs.
Other suggestions include kicking off the season with the Busch Light Clash exhibition race — which moved to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2022 after more than 40 years at Daytona — or back to the original date after Daytona.
According to Rockingham Speedway’s Justin Jones, fans have expressed interest in warmer race dates.
During the ribbon cutting in July of 2021, Steve Morris, Rockingham mayor at the time, said he could remember sitting in the stands during a cold race “and I never thought I’d be warm again.”
Click here to read the ribbon cutting story.
“We’re doing everything we can to entice NASCAR to come back,” Jones said, but he added, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Tell us what you think by voting in the poll below.
In 2018, Rockingham Speedway garnered half the votes on a Twitter poll released by NASCAR on NBC asking at which historic track fans would rather NASCAR return. The other two choices were North Wilkesboro or Nashville Fairgrounds.
Out of 5,913 total votes, 50% of respondents chose the Rock, while Wilkesboro and Nashville received 26 and 20 percent, respectively.
Click here to read about the Twitter poll.
Just because NASCAR hasn’t returned to the track doesn’t mean drivers haven’t been there.
In February 2021, Alex Bowman and Formula Drift driver Pat Goodin took turns in Bowman’s Corvette around Rockingham Speedway’s infield road course during MB Drift’s Ice Breaker Challenge.
In November that year, Mike Harmon ran a few exhibition laps at Motorsport 4the Masses’ Motorfest at Thunder Alley on Nov. 13, which served as a fundraiser for Smiling While Sending Hope, a Youngsville-based organization that “benefits people from birth to age 26 with chronic illness and special needs.”
Harmon was subsequently fined by NASCAR, accused of testing at an unsanctioned track.
The driver appealed the decision and NASCAR ultimately dropped the fine and six-month suspension of crew chief Ryan Bell, but deducted 75 driver points and 75 owner points.
Click here to read about the appeal decision.
There have also been two former drivers to make appearances at the track.
Donnie Allison, who won at the Rock in 1968 and 1977, was signing autographs at the speedway’s inaugural Open House in March 2021. Allison is scheduled to be back next month.
Click here to read about the 2023 Open House.
Rusty Wallace, who has five Cup Series wins at the track and holds the speed record, was a speaker earlier this month with the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources kicked off the Moonshine and Motorsports Trail.
The Rusty Wallace Racing Experience is scheduled to offer driving opportunities at the speedway in August.
Click here to read about the Moonshine and Motorsports Trail.
Click here to read about the speedway’s 2023 Schedule.
The RO’s Russell Parker contributed to this story.