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“It was a heartbreaking loss when the decision was made to leave, but that’s now in the past and we are focused on the future,” Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin said. “We never gave up hope that one day we would welcome NASCAR back home to Rockingham Speedway.

Andy Hillenburg and his team have done a great job, and our community has rallied behind him and supported the effort every step of the way. The welcome mat is out, and we are proud to once again be a part of the NASCAR family.”

The return has been met with enthusiasm throughout the industry. The track was always considered a driver favorite, and its demise was generally attributed to its location and lack of updated amenities.

“It’s one of the coolest race tracks we ever ran on,” veteran Jeff Burton said. “It was one of the hardest tracks we would go to. You would take off and have new tires on and you would feel like Richard Petty. And a few laps later you would feel like you had never been on a race track before in your life.

“It was one of those race tracks that I got a chance to race on when I was growing up and moving into the larger divisions. And it’s really cool to see the Truck Series going back there. I actually contemplated trying to run the race.”

Because the Sprint Cup Series races at Texas on Saturday night, the Rockingham race falls on an off day for NASCAR’s stars.

Kasey Kahne jumped at making a return. He’s forever linked to Rockingham’s history as part of what many consider to be one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history _ in what just happened to be Rockingham’s final race. Kahne, in only his second Cup race, tried to pass Matt Kenseth coming out of the final turn and raced him to the finish line, only to lose by .010 seconds.

Kahne is scheduled to race Sunday in a Turner Motorsports truck.

“As soon as I heard that NASCAR was adding the Rockingham truck race to the schedule, I wanted to run it,” said Kahne, who will compete for his fourth win in five career starts. “I think it is great for the sport and the fans that we are going back to Rockingham.”

Hillenburg is anxiously optimistic headed into Sunday’s race and won’t dream beyond this initial NASCAR event. Of course he’d like to bring the second-tier Nationwide Series to The Rock but knows he needs to take it one race at a time.

“This feeling is exactly like strapping up and getting in the car for the beginning of the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 when you are a rookie,” he said. “You know you belong there, know you will do a good job, but you haven’t seen it yet.

“Hopefully, we’ll live to fight another day. I understand how the system works. I am not going to make any crazy statements, because that puts NASCAR in a box and that’s not fair to them. But I am very proud to be a part of this, and if we are successful, we’ll see what happens next.”