The Fate of the Final 37: How North Wilkesboro’s Last NASCAR Cup Race Changed the Lives of Its Drivers

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[3]: “Former competitors share stories of North Wilkesboro – NBC Sports”

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The Fate of the Final 37: How North Wilkesboro’s Last NASCAR Cup Race Changed the Lives of Its Drivers

Use the words “iconic photo” and “North Wilkesboro” in the same breath, and most drivers know the one you’re talking about.

It’s the one that captures the fronstretch of a bittersweet day at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It features a young Jeff Gordon kneeling at the start-finish line. Dale Earnhardt is pictured sitting in the row behind him. Every other driver in the entry list of that September 1996 race — the last time the NASCAR Cup Series visited North Wilkesboro Speedway before leaving and almost never coming back — was photographed, too.

But what happened to those drivers after that historic race? Where are they now? And why did NASCAR leave this legendary track?

In this blog post, we’ll explore the stories behind this iconic photo and how North Wilkesboro’s last NASCAR Cup race changed the lives of its drivers.

What happened in the final Cup race at North Wilkesboro?

The final Cup race at North Wilkesboro was called the Tyson Holly Farms 400. It took place on Sept. 29, 1996, and it was won by Jeff Gordon, who led 207 laps out of 400.

Gordon and Dale Earnhardt battled for the lead in the second half of the race, with Gordon taking the lead for good with 79 laps to go. There were just four cautions in the race, and all 37 cars were running at the finish. Eleven cars were on the lead lap at the end.

Gordon extended his 1996 points lead with four races remaining but eventually lost the 1996 title to teammate Terry Labonte.

Why did NASCAR leave North Wilkesboro?

There were a couple of factors that led to NASCAR leaving North Wilkesboro. One was that the track was aging and lacked modern facilities that other newer tracks had at the time. The track was also the smallest by capacity on the schedule by 1996.

Another factor was that the track’s shares were bought separately by SMI founder Bruton Smith and New Hampshire Motor Speedway owner Bob Bahre before the start of the 1996 season. Once that occurred, North Wilkesboro Speedway’s fate was sealed.

New Hampshire ended up with the September date, and Texas got North Wilkesboro’s April race date.

Many fans and drivers were saddened by NASCAR’s departure from North Wilkesboro, which had hosted two Cup races per year since 1957 and was one of NASCAR’s original tracks.

Where are they now? The stories behind the final 37 drivers

So what happened to those drivers who raced in North Wilkesboro’s last NASCAR Cup race? Some ended up becoming racing legends. Others have since passed away. And some are living new lives across the country.

Here is a look at where all the drivers from that last NASCAR Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro Speedway are today — or close to today, at least. The drivers are ordered by their finishing position from that Sept. 1996 race.

  • P1, Jeff Gordon. Since his North Wilkesboro win, Gordon has been everywhere — from hosting Saturday Night Live, to working for Fox Sports as a racing analyst, to assuming the role of vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, where he currently works. He wrapped up his NASCAR Cup Series career with 93 wins (third-most all-time) and four Cup championships, and his star power helped thrust NASCAR into its golden years in the late 90s and early 2000s before retiring in 2015.
  • P2, Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator continued to be one of NASCAR’s most dominant and popular drivers until his tragic death in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He won his seventh and final Cup championship in 1994 and finished second in points four times after that. He also founded Dale Earnhardt Inc., which fielded cars for his son Dale Jr., Steve Park, Michael Waltrip, and others.
  • P3, Dale Jarrett. Jarrett went on to win three more races in 1996 and claimed his first and only Cup championship in 1999. He also won two more Daytona 500s in 1996 and 2000, becoming one of only six drivers to win three or more of NASCAR’s biggest race. He retired from full-time racing in 2008 and became a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC Sports.
  • P4, Jeff Burton. Burton became one of NASCAR’s most consistent drivers in
    the late 90s and early 2000s, winning 21 races and finishing in the top five in points four times. He also earned respect as a leader and a spokesman for driver safety issues. He retired from full-time racing in 2014 and joined NBC Sports as a racing analyst.
  • P5, Terry Labonte. Labonte won his second Cup championship in 1996, edging out teammate Jeff Gordon by 37 points. He also won two more races after that, including his final win at Darlington in 2003. He retired from full-time racing in 2004 but made occasional starts until his final race at Talladega in 2014.
  • P6, Rick Mast. Mast never won a Cup race but came close several times,
    including finishing second at Pocono in 1997. He retired from racing in
    2002 after being diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. He later
    became involved in bourbon distilling and co-founded Rack & Mast
  • P7, Ricky Rudd. Rudd was known as one of NASCAR’s toughest drivers,
    racing with injuries such as a separated shoulder and a swollen eye.
    He won six more races after North Wilkesboro, including his final win
    at Sonoma in 2002. He retired from full-time racing in 2005 but made a
    comeback with Robert Yates Racing in 2007 before retiring for good.
  • P8, Bobby Hamilton. Hamilton won four Cup races in his career,
    including two with Petty Enterprises in 1996 and 1997. He also won
    the Craftsman Truck Series championship in 2004 as an owner-driver.
    He died of cancer in 2007 at age 49.
  • P9, Mark Martin. Martin is widely regarded as one of NASCAR’s greatest
    drivers never to win a Cup championship. He finished second in points
    five times, including four times to Jeff Gordon. He won 40 Cup races
    and a record-tying five IROC titles. He retired from full-time racing
    in 2013 but made a few starts afterward until his final race at Las
    Vegas in 2015.
  • P10, Rusty Wallace. Wallace was one of NASCAR’s most successful
    and charismatic drivers, winning 55 Cup races and the 1989 Cup
    championship. He also had a long-running rivalry with Dale Earnhardt.
    He retired from racing in 2005 and became a broadcaster for ESPN
    and MRN Radio.

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Written by John Wich

John Wich is a skilled news writer dedicated to delivering informative and captivating stories to readers. With a passion for uncovering the truth, John's writing reflects his commitment to accuracy and engaging storytelling. His expertise in journalism ensures that he provides valuable insights on a wide range of topics.

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