Photo Credit: Panoramic Images

The Last Hurrah is a series that discusses the final major sports events at sporting venues around the world.

On Sunday, February 22nd, 2004, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) made its final stop at North Carolina (now Rockingham) Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina, for the running of the Subway 400.

The track first opened in 1965, with the Cup Series racing there since the track’s opening year. Starting the following season in 1966, the track began hosting two Cup events per season, which continued through 2003. In 1969, the track changed its layout slightly, going from a one mile long track to a 1.017 mile track, while adding five to eight degrees of banking in the turns.

However, in a similar case to North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that I covered earlier, North Carolina Speedway was victimized by NASCAR wanting to move into larger markets. Late in 2003, NASCAR decided to give California (now Auto Club) Speedway a second Cup race date for the 2004 season, which would be the penultimate race before heading into the first ever “Chase for the Cup” playoffs. However, this would cost Rockingham its second race date, meaning it would only hold one race in the 2004 season.

Unlike North Wilkesboro, it had not been announced that this would be the final Cup race at North Carolina Speedway, so the atmosphere before the green flag seemed like any other race. The announcers talked about their picks to win the race and covered the news from the previous week. The crowd was reported to be about 50,000 in attendance out of the approximately 61,000 available seats, not including infield campgrounds. While it was rumored at the time that it would be the last race, it was far from confirmed at that point.

The race got underway just past 1 p.m., with Ryan Newman starting on the pole and leading the first two laps. However, the race also started on a weird note, with veteran driver Joe Ruttman being parked by NASCAR on the first lap of the race, as they had noticed that Ruttman did not have any pit crew or even a spotter, just the driver and crew chief were the only team members at the track. It turned out that it had been a shrewd cost cutting maneuver by team owner James Finch, who was trying to save money by not paying a pit crew while still collecting the money for starting the race. It worked, as the team still collected $54,196 for making the race, however a NASCAR spokesperson reportedly called the move a “sham”.

Jamie McMurray took the lead on lap three, who led for the next several laps. Meanwhile, Robby Gordon suffered his first incident of the race as he brushed the wall on lap 11, but was able to continue. Kirk Shelmerdine became the second driver out of the race on lap 19, as he pulled into the garage with rear end gear problems. McMurray continued to hold the lead until lap 40, when the caution waved for the first time as Ken Schrader hit the wall in turn one, however he would be able to continue.

Jeff Gordon took the lead on the ensuing round of pit stops, while Jeremy Mayfield would be penalized as one of his tires rolled away from his pit crew and down pit road, where it was hit by both John Andretti and Jeff Green. However, neither of those cars suffered significant damage.

The teams wouldn’t have to wait long for another caution, as Kyle Petty spun on the backstretch on lap 53 after contact with Johnny Sauter.

McMurray briefly took the lead back from Gordon as the cars headed down pit road once again, however Robby Gordon had other ideas and decided to stay out and assume the lead on lap 54. Also during the caution on lap 56, Jeff Burton would come to the garage with engine troubles, and while he would return to the track later, he went several laps down and eventually retired from the race.

Gordon was quickly overtaken on the restart by Ryan Newman on lap 59, who led for the next handful of laps before Jeff Gordon came back to retake the lead on lap 63. Kurt Busch, who was trying to come through the field after a poor qualifying run, scraped the wall on lap 66, but continued on without further incident. Gordon continued to hold the lead until lap 90, when Matt Kenseth took his first lead of the race. Not much would change until Newman grabbed the lead back on lap 130 during a round of pit stops, which was followed two laps later by a crash between Schrader and Jimmie Johnson. Schrader was attempting to pit, however Johnson was not expecting the move and ran into the back of Schrader. Johnson also slid into the turn four wall, causing further damage to his car, and would not be able to continue in the race, while Schrader was able to continue with damage. During the green flag pit stops, Michael Waltrip was penalized for leaving the pit box with a wedge wrench still stuck in the rear windshield, and Kevin Harvick was penalized for avoiding coming down pit road after passing through the commitment line. Both drivers would have to restart from the tail end of the longest line.

During the pit stops under caution, the remainder of the lead lap cars who had not yet pitted came down, allowing Kenseth to retake the lead on lap 136. However, also on lap 136, Kasey Kahne would be hit with the same penalty that befell Waltrip, as he also left the box with a wedge wrench still in the car. He, too, would have to restart from the tail end of the longest line.

On lap 143, Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears would make contact in a battle for position, which caused Labonte to have a flat tire a lap later and had to make an unscheduled pit stop. On lap 188, Larry Foyt, who had made a pit stop under green, had to come in again with yet another wedge wrench stuck in the rear windshield. Lap 192 saw Tony Stewart, who had been struggling with an ill-handling car throughout the race, have to make an unscheduled stop for a flat tire, just like his teammate Labonte. A caution came out just four laps later, as Foyt’s difficult race got worse as he spun in turn one.

Kenseth maintained the lead through pit stops and stayed up front, while Dale Jarrett suffered a blown engine on lap 210 and was knocked out of the race. On lap 214, the caution came out for a Miller Lite beer can, presumably thrown from the grandstands, on the track, which brought the leaders down pit road, except for Harvick, who attempted to stay out on old tires and led two laps under caution.

Kenseth took the lead back from Harvick on lap 217, and stayed there through lap 265, where the most spectacular wreck of the race and arguably the season took place.

It began as Brendan Gaughan clipped and turned Joe Nemechek into the right-rear quarter panel of Carl Long, who was with an underfunded team and running several laps down. Long was hooked into the outside backstretch wall, but as the car hit the wall it rolled onto its side. The car then slid on its side almost to turn three, before eventually turning over onto its roof and tumbling over five and a half times, landing on the roof before slowly turning back on all four wheels due to the banking.

“I was just running along, letting pretty much everybody by,” Long said after the race. “And all of a sudden I'm in the air, looking right at the people eating chicken in the grandstands.”

Nemechek and Bobby Labonte both spun trying to avoid the accident, while Mark Martin suffered minor damage as well due to the wreck. Long and all other drivers involved were fine, and Long was the only one to be out of the race after the accident. However, the wreck would be a big setback to his team as their only car was destroyed, and would not be able to compete again until May, with help from fan donations enabling them to purchase another car.

After the crash caused a lengthy cleanup, the race got restarted on lap 280 with Kenseth still in the lead. On lap 291, Martin and Ricky Craven made contact, adding to the damage on Martin’s car, but both continued. McMurray grabbed the lead once again on lap 304, and was able to hold off Kenseth for the next several laps. On lap 330, Greg Biffle brushed the wall, getting slight damage, but his teammate Kenseth was able to grab the lead back from McMurray on lap 332.

The two drivers then traded the lead again as McMurray regained the advantage on lap 350 while Kenseth went in for a green flag pit stop, followed by a caution for another scary-looking accident as Robby Gordon squeezed into Jeff Green coming off turn two, but the car popped up and onto its side. Unlike Long’s accident, however, the car did not roll over as it slid on its side briefly and landed back on all four wheels before backing into the backstretch inside wall. Gordon even drove it back to the pit area, but there was too much damage and was done for the day.

As spectacular as the crash was, it also shook up the running order as it had happened in the middle of green flag pit stops. Kenseth and Kahne were nearly trapped a lap down by the caution, but in a stroke of luck both were still on the lead lap when the caution waved. McMurray’s crew chief, Donnie Wingo, argued that McMurray had in fact put them a lap down before the caution came out, however it was to no avail. Kenseth reassumed the lead on lap 360 as McMurray came down pit road. Despite getting the lucky break, Kahne developed radio problems during the warmup laps leading up to what would be the final restart, as the crew chief was unable to hear the spotter, however it was far too late to lose track position trying to fix it.

The race restarted with 30 laps to go, with Kenseth in first, Kahne in second and McMurray in third. Kenseth kept the lead through the restart with a little help from the lapped car of Martin, who was also Kenseth’s teammate, as Martin blocked a run that Kahne had on the restart. NASCAR did not see kindly to the help that Martin provided and while he wasn’t penalized, both him and his crew chief, Pat Tryson, were called into the NASCAR hauler after the race.

Meanwhile, Kenseth was not able to gap Kahne at all as Kahne began charging back through the final 30 laps, with McMurray in hot pursuit as well. Kenseth struggled to get through lapped traffic, allowing Kahne to close right up to the bumper on the final lap.

In turns one and two, Kahne looked high to get around Kenseth, but did not have enough momentum to get to the door, while McMurray was still less than two car lengths back. In turns three and four, however, Kenseth made the mistake Kahne had been looking for, drifting up high while Kahne had a run in the middle of the track. Kahne had all the momentum coming to the finish line as the two drag raced down the front stretch, but it wouldn’t be enough as Kenseth beat Kahne by .01 seconds, at the time, the fourth-closest finish in Cup Series history.

“It was a blast, the end was a little stressful,” Kenseth said in victory lane. “You’ve got to watch out for Kasey Kahne because he’s kind of a sleeper… Our Ford Taurus was so good today and I just had a blast, everyone in the Roush engine department and the Yates engine department, everyone combined has done such a great job. We’ve just got awesome engines, we’ve got a better body this year and I think you’ll see a lot of this this year, maybe not from me but I think from all the Roush boys. This is a good way to start it off.”

Photo Credit: Roush Yates Engines

Kurt Busch, another one of the “Roush boys” recovered from his brush with the wall and 27th place starting spot to finish eighth, one of nine cars still on the lead lap. Busch would go on to win three races and the championship, the first one under the Chase format.

While it is most likely the final Cup Series race ever held at the track, unlike North Wilkesboro it never closed down immediately afterward. The track continued to be used as a test track for the Cup Series drivers until 2008 when testing was banned by NASCAR, and was even used as a filming location for the racing comedy, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby".

In 2007, former driver Andy Hillenburg, who started last and finished 34th, 17 laps down in the track’s final Cup race, purchased the track and in 2008, racing returned to the track once again as the ARCA Re/Max (now ARCA Racing) Series began racing there from 2008-10. Also in 2008, the USAR Hooters Pro Cup (now CARS X1-R Pro Cup) Series started racing their late models there as well. It was also in 2008 that the track officially renamed from ‘North Carolina Speedway’ to ‘Rockingham Speedway’. Starting in 2009, the track also held an exhibition race called the “Polar Bear 150” in which over 60 street stocks raced against each other on New Year’s Day. All of this on-track activity eventually culminated in getting a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race date in 2012, which was won by Kasey Kahne. NASCAR also added a stock car race date too, with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East holding their final race of the 2012 season there.

By 2013, the number of races went down significantly, as the Truck Series race, which was won by current Cup Series racer Kyle Larson, was the only major race to happen on the track that year. The Truck Series announced that they would not be returning to the track in 2014, and in 2015 the property was foreclosed on.

However, there is still a lot of hope that racing may return to Rockingham once again. In August 2018, the track was purchased by a land developer named Dan Lovenheim. In an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in September, Lovenheim stated that he plans on having not only racing events back at Rockingham, but also festivals and concerts. He also plans on rebranding the property as the “Rock Entertainment Complex”.

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Other sources: “NASCAR Chronicle” by Greg Fielden

New Rockingham Speedway owner reaches out to NASCAR by Matt Weaver

Up next: The 1998 NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi @ Twin Ring Motegi

R.I.P. David Pearson, a five-time winner in the Cup Series at Rockingham