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Revisiting ancient history

Darrell Waltrip, seen here leading the field on April 9, 1995, retired five years later. The Sharpe Image/Smyle Media

Twenty years now,
Where'd they go?
Twenty years now,
I don't know.
Sit and I wonder sometimes, Where they've gone...

Bob Seger wrote those words, the quietest, most stirring section of his classic song "Like A Rock."

If you were a NASCAR fan 20 years ago, then you know every single word of that song by heart. Why? Because the tune was played during nearly every commercial break of every race telecast of the 1995 Cup Series season, the height of its run as the anthem for Chevy Trucks.

It was the NASCAR Winston Cup Series then. A still-East Coast world ruled by black race cars, dominated by Dale versus Rusty, and televised via an alphabet soup of cable channels, from ESPN to TBS to TNN. Yes, TNN, as in The Nashville Network, home of Crook & Chase. (You kids out there, you can Google it.)

If, just for kicks, we took the upcoming race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and ran it through Seger's 20-year time machine, where would we end up? We'd go back through the cellphones -- Sprint and Nextel both -- and back to the cigarettes. We'd land in a place and at a race that might very well be the perfect time capsule for a bygone era that, by the count of calendar pages, isn't even all that bygone.

Looking back, that weekend was dang near the Continental Divide between the sport we knew then and the NASCAR we know today.

The standard definition square TV screen flickers through the horizontal hold and we see Bob Jenkins, with his blue blazer and white ESPN mike flag. "Hi, and welcome to North Wilkesboro and the First Union 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race ..."

That's right. On April 9, 1995, we were racing at the North Wilkesboro Speedway, the 5/8-mile bullring where moonshiners used to gather, plowing their way around a dirt oval to see who had the fastest liquor hauler. Then they drove off the track and into the surrounding hills and went back to doing exactly that: hauling liquor.

On April 9, 1995, North Wilkesboro was still owned by the family of Enoch Staley, but it was struggling. They were being applauded for finally ridding the track of its single pit road, the one that forced teams to share and swap out pit stalls in the middle of races (!), and going with one long concrete pit road.

But truthfully -- and this hurts -- the place was a dump. For years, local officials had looked the other way when it came to building codes and broken bathrooms to keep NASCAR coming. Just as it had when it held the season finale of the first Strictly Stock schedule, the race in which Red Byron was declared the first Cup Series champion.

On April 9, 1995, there were 36 cars in the field. No, that wasn't a short field. It was standard operating procedure for short track races - all eight of them -- to host just 36 cars. Not that there weren't enough for a modern day 43-car grid. In fact, nine cars failed to qualify, including Jeremy Mayfield driving for Cale Yarborough, Jeff Purvis driving for Junior Johnson, and would-be rookie of the year candidate Steve Kinser, driving for NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein.

They weren't fast enough, so they didn't make the race. Interesting concept, right?

Jeff Gordon was plenty fast enough, just as he'd been all season. The 22-year-old was starting on the pole for the fourth time in seven races. He'd come into 1995 with just two career Cup wins, but had now won in three of the first six weekends of this, just his third full season. (The other winners? Sterling Marlin at Daytona and Darlington, and Terry Labonte at Richmond.)

Just one week earlier, the most common knock on Gordon was, "He can't win on short tracks." Then he led 205 of 500 laps to beat Rusty Wallace at Bristol, the first of his eventual 16 career short-track wins.

On April 9, 1995, Gordon shared the front row with Brett Bodine. Today, Gordon and Bodine still hook up at the front of the grid from time to time -- Gordon still in a race car, following Bodine, who now drives the pace car.

Just behind them in Row 2 were Derrike Cope, driving for Bobby Allison, and Bobby Hamilton, still settling into his role as the new driver of Richard Petty's STP Pontiac Grand Prix (one of five in the field) which had been vacated by The King less than two and a half years earlier.

Starting inside Row 3 was Dale Earnhardt. The defending Winston Cup champion came into the day as the series points leader, but he was cranky. (Though not too cranky to grab a Sharpie and spontaneously autograph Dr. Jerry Punch's ESPN firesuit during the prerace show, as a Barney Fife impersonator looked on. Seriously.) Earnhardt was still winless, and the kid whom he'd christened "Wonder Boy" was visiting Victory Lane every other weekend.

The Intimidator was also concerned about the new pit road situation at North Wilkesboro. You see, in those days, one of the perks of being the reigning champ was that you always got first dibs on the first pit stall. That rule had been a huge factor in his tying Petty with seven Cup championships. "But today," his crew chief Andy Petree admitted that day, "it might not be an advantage."

Yes, kids, that's the same Andy Petree you watch on TV now.

On April 9, 1995, Earnhardt was one of one five future NASCAR Hall of Famers in the field, joining Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott. Earnhardt's son, Dale Junior, was 20 years old and working in the service department of his dad's Chevy dealership, doing oil changes for street cars. Waltrip's little brother, Michael, was already known as NASCAR's lovable loser, about to run his career record to 0-for-275. Elliott and his wife had just recently started telling friends and family that they'd be having a baby in the fall. When he was born on Nov. 28, they'd name him Chase.

Elliott, Waltrip and Geoff Bodine were three of the six driver/owners in the field. What they didn't know was that they were hitting the apex of that craze. By decade's end, they would all be out of the ownership business, signing with other teams and auctioning off their belongings for dimes on the dollar.

Under clear-blue skies, the 400-lap race took a crisp 2 hours and 26 minutes to complete, with only three cautions. There were no Lucky Dogs or wavearounds, so only five cars finished on the lead lap. There were no late cautions or double-file restarts. No green-white-checkers. Just checkers, which were shown to Earnhardt, who led 227 laps and ran nearly the final 90 on one set of tires, outpacing Gordon by nearly 14 seconds.

"We finally won one!" he exclaimed in Victory Lane. "It's amazing. We finally beat Wonder Boy. I'm just kidding. He's just another driver. A good one, though."

He didn't thank his Richard Childress Racing teammates because he didn't have any. Mike Skinner wouldn't join him full time until 1997. The only teams fielding multiple cars that day were Hendrick Motorsports with Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader, and Roush Racing (no Fenway yet) with Mark Martin and Ted Musgrave (in the Family Channel Ford!).

The conventional wisdom of the day said that multicar teams created too much internal tension. By season's end, their success was undeniable. Pooling resources proved a greater advantage than the potential drawback of jealously in the break room. Over the next three years, Hendrick and Roush would expand their teams again ... and again. Then so would everyone else.

On April 9, 1995, the top five was rounded out by Mark Martin, Wallace and Steve Grissom. Martin and Wallace, both Ford drivers, immediately decried Chevy's 7-for-7 winning streak and demanded that NASCAR slash spoilers and alter body shapes the following weekend. Such demands were standard operating procedure at the time.

All of those second-through-fifth finishers are retired now, including Grissom, who at the time was considered to be a co-usher into NASCAR's next era along with Gordon. Jeff Burton, the reigning Raybestos Rookie the Year, finished 26th. Ricky Craven, on his way to 1995 rookie of the year honors, landed in 33rd.

In fact, of the 36 drivers in the field on April 9, 1995, only one is still racing full time in the Cup Series. That would be Gordon, who this weekend will resume his farewell tour. Seven months after his runner-up Wilkesboro finish, he clinched his first Cup title. It was also the first for his boss, team owner Rick Hendrick.

There are some from that day still racing. Cope is still hanging onto the bottom rung of the XFinity Series. Morgan Shepherd, who finished 19th, still shows up from time to time, as do Bobby Labonte (15th), Joe Nemechek (20th), Michael Waltrip (22nd) and Mike Wallace (36th). Ken Schrader (12th) is always playing in the dirt somewhere. But all the others are either retired, broke, obscure, enjoying their lives as living legends, or, in the case of Earnhardt, Hamilton, and Dick Trickle (32nd), no longer with us.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway sits abandoned. The following year would be its 92nd, 93rd and final Winston Cup events, the last won by Gordon, of course. That same year, the Staley family sold the oval to Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre, who took the race dates and moved them to other tracks they owned. The early April date was taken by Smith and moved to his sparkling new show palace north of Fort Worth, the Texas Motor Speedway. It's been there ever since.

Back then, it was a radical idea to think about a new speedway opening or running a Winston Cup race west of the Mississippi. In 2015, the sport has a just-completed West Coast swing. Texas marks the fourth of the first seven races to be held outside the Eastern time zone.

North Wilkesboro reopened briefly in 2011, but has since been re-shuttered. If you walk the grounds around the padlocked and rusted Junior Johnson grandstand, there are still the remnants of faded First Union logos, and even an old green ATM booth. That bank is also gone, vanished via mergers and acquisitions and absorbed by the massiveness that is Wells Fargo.

Was NASCAR better on that day, April 9, 1995? Not really. Our minds have a way of painting experiences with more fondness the smaller they grow in the rearview mirror. Was NASCAR more rugged and quaint on that day? Yes. However, like the North Wilkesboro Speedway and The Nashville Network, rugged and quaint can only get you so far.

We can choose to look back on that day with tears of joy, tears of melancholy, or no tears at all. We can see lessons in the road since, or just be glad we were here to travel that road.

Regardless, we can't think of it without hearing that quiet, aching lyric ringing in our ears.

Twenty years now ... where'd they go?