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Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Rockingham gets one more shot

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

On the morning of March 6, Red Horse Racing rolled into Rockingham Speedway. Driver Timothy Peters and his Toyota squad were one of three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams selected to help prep Goodyear for the April 15 event at the place they call The Rock.

Before anyone on the team even picked up a wrench, Butch Hylton did what he always does when his crew visits an old-school NASCAR facility. He gathered the young guys -- and there are a lot of them at Red Horse -- and threw them in a car.

Steve Park
Steve Park raced to an emotional victory at The Rock on Feb. 25, 2001 -- one week after Dale Earnhardt's death.

"I said, 'All right, boys, it's time for a history lesson,'" recalled the crew chief. "We took a ride around The Rock and I showed them every bump. I even showed them where we used to eat. I showed them every spot around that track where all the great moments took place."

On Sunday, the legendary 1-mile oval will once again play host to one of those moments. This time it's a genuine resurrection, as the track formerly known as the North Carolina Motor Speedway returns to the NASCAR ranks for the first time in nearly a decade. From 1965-2004 it hosted 120 races across NASCAR's top two series. But thinning crowds and limited corporate amenities cost the sandy circuit its place on the stock car calendar in favor of flashier speedways in bigger media markets to the west.

Now, after eight years in exile, The Rock is getting another shot.

It's fitting that Hylton, now in his 21st NASCAR season, will be there. He has witnessed many of Rockingham's greatest moments firsthand, holding direct connections to more than a few. He made his first trip to the Carolina Sandhills in March 1991 with underfunded, undermanned Stanley Smith Racing. After moving to Roush Racing he was part of Mark Martin's ridiculous Busch Series dominance at The Rock, at one point winning four straight races, two from the pole. Hylton has stood in the Rockingham pits dressed in everything from rain gear to snow boots, working with everyone from Kevin Harvick to Jeff Green to Ron Hornaday Jr. to Bobby Labonte.

"I still accuse Bobby of letting Steve Park win that race in 2001," he joked, recalling the amazing, emotional second race of '01 season, the first after the death of Dale Earnhardt one week earlier. He was car chief on Labonte's No. 18 Chevy, the defending Winston Cup champion. Labonte dominated the day but was reeled in by Park -- driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- who won by a scant .138-second margin. It was the moment when NASCAR started the post-Earnhardt healing process, setting off an explosion of tears and cheers throughout the grandstands and the pits.

"I remember we got there early on Friday and Earnhardt's hauler came in and started unloading that white 29 car. Their full crew wasn't there yet -- it was the just the road guys. The car wasn't anywhere close to being ready so we helped them get it set up. I met Kevin Harvick that morning for the first time and it started a great relationship that continues to this day."

Then the 46-year-old got downright nostalgic: "You know that wasn't that long ago, but the Cup garage was so different then. Can you imagine a Joe Gibbs Racing crew jumping in and helping a Richard Childress Racing crew get their car set up for practice? The Truck series garage is still like that. And when we walked back into that garage at Rockingham for the test, I got that old-school feeling back. I'll have it again this weekend. The two are just kind of a natural fit."

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth was the last Sprint Cup driver to celebrate a victory at The Rock, in February 2004.

This weekend, Hylton's professorial experience with his young team will be repeated throughout every garage stall and pit box at Rockingham Speedway. The Truck series has always been an interesting mix of fresh-faced newcomers and leather-faced veterans. It's a series where 53-year-old Hornaday races door-to-door with 19-year-old Max Gresham, or as Hornaday puts it, "Grandpas versus grandkids." It's also the series where up-and-coming mechanics and fledgling NASCAR officials can learn at the feet of some old masters. This weekend those masters will be spinning extra yarns.

"The first time I came to Rockingham I was just a kid sitting over in the old Unocal 76 garage," said Wayne Auton, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series director. "The first race I ever worked as a NASCAR official was here. So the young guys on our team better just go on and settle in and get ready for some big-time storytelling from Wayne Auton, whether they want it or not."

Judging from the smiles on those young guys' faces, they want it. An entire generation of racers has arrived in NASCAR since the sanctioning body left Rockingham for more fertile financial ground. For eight years they've heard the "Oh, you should have seen Rockingham" stories. The last NASCAR event run at The Rock was Matt Kenseth's thrilling win over Kasey Kahne in the Subway 400, a race run on Feb. 22, 2004.

"I was just about to turn 12 years old," said Ty Dillon, who is fourth in Truck series points. Dillon's grandfather, Richard Childress, clinched his sixth Cup Series title at Rockingham in 1994. His father, Mike Dillon, started a dozen Nationwide Series races there. And Dillon himself won an ARCA event at The Rock in 2010, the last big non-NASCAR stock car race run there since the track was reopened in '08. "I can remember going there as a little kid. Pop-Pop has been telling stories about racing there forever. But hearing the stories is one thing. Actually getting out there and racing is something else. When you get both at the same time? That's a fun weekend at the racetrack right there."

On Tuesday afternoon, the shop floor at Red Horse Racing was bustling as the team prepared to head east down U.S. Highway 74. Sitting nose-to-tail were the Tundras of Peters, who's only Rockingham experience was as a teenage kart racer, and Todd Bodine, who has made 34 NASCAR starts at The Rock, including two Nationwide Series wins.

"I'm so excited I can't hardly stand it," Peters giddily exclaimed, all the while running a Rockingham ticket giveaway on his Twitter account. "Anytime you get to run at a new racetrack, it's exciting."

Then he caught himself and smiled. "Especially when that new racetrack isn't really new at all."