It’s a question us journalists hear all the time – especially after the three-week swing of racing at Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta. If I had to count up all the random emails in my inbox from fans this month, hidden somewhere in between “Why don’t you treat Dale Earnhardt Jr. more fairly” and “you suck because of A, B and C” is a basic complaint about NASCAR’s “cookie cutter” racing facilities, ending with, “Why can’t the sport build more tracks like the one they have in Bristol?”
I hear you, guys… I hear you loud and clear. No matter what problems we face in the sport these days, the ½-mile track in Thunder Valley is still looked at as one where lightning strikes twice on the Sprint Cup circuit each year. While a repave has changed the type of racing we’ve seen over the past few seasons, Bristol still provides at least a threat of the type of action that’s attracted millions to sit down and get addicted to cars driving “round in circles.” It’s classic, old-school NASCAR at its best, where side-by-side racing comes with donuts plastered on the side of the car, and slowpokes learn their lesson in the form of a slam on their rear bumper – one that may or may not turn them into the inside wall. The close competition is usually reflected in the attendance at this race track, with each date earning a sellout every year since 1983.
From a fan’s perspective, I know years before I covered this sport on a regular basis there was one race I’d go through hell and high water not to miss: the Bristol night race. It’s provided some of the fondest memories I’ve ever had of NASCAR, and many others feel the same way – which is why it’s no surprise that after four weeks of disappointing finishes, we’re all looking at this special place and hoping there’s still enough magic to put 2009 back on the right track. Heck, if you remember the last time we came here, there was enough of a fracas over the final 35 laps we got some emotion out of both Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, with Carl’s win coming complete with a near-spin of his Sprint Cup rival en route to taking the lead. The two then made post-race contact that caused the No. 18 to go wild after the checkered flag, spun out by the No. 99 after slamming into the side of his Ford to showcase some obvious displeasure. It was the raw emotion lacking all too often in stock car racing these days, two drivers putting on a show for the fans while not caring about the consequences.
That was hardly the best performance we’ve ever seen at the short track of all short tracks, though. Here’s what I feel like are the top five best Bristol performances, all of which deserve their place on the list of all-time greatest NASCAR races. If only we could have one more to add to the pantheon this weekend, maybe – just maybe – all the criticism facing this sport would take a one-week break. For when a race is defined by the close competition that brought NASCAR’s popularity to this point, everything else seems to naturally fade away into the background.
Alright, without further ado, here’s my new list as of spring 2009:
If you don’t get excited over the final 10 laps of this race, well… I might have to question your dedication to stock car racing. People remember the finish more than anything else – and rightfully so – but there was so much more that makes this race No. 1. The mood was set from the very first caution, when Dale Earnhardt and perennial Bristol contender Rusty Wallace made contact coming out of turn 4. Wallace ended up hard in the wall, his chances for the win all but dashed and his temper firing out of control. Shaking his finger at Earnhardt under yellow, Wallace would wind up throwing a water bottle at the Intimidator after the race in one of the more infamous post-Bristol clashes in modern history.
In a race that featured 15 cautions for 106 laps after an early rain delay, there was definitely no shortage of action throughout the night. Surprise underdog Jeremy Mayfield was involved in one of the wrecks, leading 55 of the first 107 laps before his No. 98 Ford got swept up in a second half crash that claimed over a half-a-dozen cars on the high banks. That left Earnhardt battling at the front of the field with Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and even 12-time winner Darrell Waltrip. As the laps wound down, Labonte seemed to have the race in control, building up a healthy lead after passing Jarrett to get back up front on lap 432. But Earnhardt charged up behind him, passing Jarrett for second and slowly cutting into the edge of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevy as the laps wound down. Still, with five laps to go the advantage was a healthy 1.3 seconds, good enough for Labonte to seemingly cruise to victory.
Or so he thought.
Coming up on the lead-lap cars of Jeff Burton and Mike Wallace, Labonte got stuck behind the two men battling for position at about the two laps to go mark. Earnhardt quickly seized the moment, closing dramatically on the leader and getting to Labonte’s back bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap. Turning right, turning left, Earnhardt tried everything going through turns 3 and 4, but in a matter of seconds realized that even the best of runs on the inside was going to come up short.
So, the man they called the Intimidator made a split-second decision to do what he did best in those days: make sure the man in front of him got out of his way. Tapping Labonte’s back bumper just enough, the No. 3 sent the No. 5 sideways heading into the frontstretch, giving him what he hoped would be enough momentum to sneak up to the front.
But Earnhardt’s plan came with one slight problem: he didn’t know which way Labonte’s car was going to spin out. Turning left, then turning right and eventually slamming the wall by the start/finish line, Labonte’s uncertain angle led to just enough hesitation from Earnhardt to let the No. 5 take the checkered flag ahead of him. It was a rare moment where the seven-time champion’s aggressive moves still weren’t enough; and for millions of fans at the time that saw Earnhardt as “evil,” it was the one time out of 1,000 where they could say with certainty the good guy won.
14 years later, it’s hard to find a fan on both sides of that battle who doesn’t look back in amazement. Labonte’s car rolled into victory lane with a busted radiator and a chassis for the scrap heap – but in so many ways, it felt like the perfect way to win at a track notorious for turning racecars into a pile of mush.
Four years later, it was Labonte-Earnhardt Part II in what would turn out to be the Intimidator’s final Bristol win. In a race that featured just 11 lead changes, it wasn’t exactly the thrilling action fans expected at times during the event – but the final five laps more than made up for it. Earnhardt had the lead following the 10th and final caution flag of the race, but had his hands full on the restart holding off others who’d dove down pit road for fresh rubber. Labonte was the first car who’d taken on four fresh tires, and he took no time jumping from fifth to second in just three short laps. Heading to the white flag, he seemed to have Earnhardt cleared, too… until the two charged down into turn 1 one last time.
It was then where Earnhardt chose to Intimidate once more… but this time, he left nothing to chance. With one firm tap on the rear bumper, Labonte went spinning and took virtually all lead lap cars along with him, his No. 5 going from primetime performer to pinball on the backstretch in the matter of just a few seconds. Earnhardt almost slowed up enough after that to let Jimmy Spencer slip by and snag the win, but he held on to take the checkered flag and enter Victory Lane amongst a shower of boos.
What was Earnhardt’s interpretation of that fairly obvious spin? “I just wanted to rattle his cage a bit.” It was a quote played on news stations across the country, one that not only outraged millions of NASCAR fans but turned millions more casual ones on to a sport that pulled so much action and drama from their Saturday night special. To this day, many believe Earnhardt should have been stripped of the win… but looking at how NASCAR is so tightly patrolled in certain situations today, you wonder what would have happened if that wish had actually been granted back in ‘99.
3. 1990 Valleydale Meats 500
While slightly before my time (after all, I was just nine years old) this race appears to be the one which began putting Bristol on the national map as one of the sport’s best racetracks. Early on, it didn’t look like there’d be a scintillating finish, as a new sealer on the pavement wrecked havoc with the driving style of all the sport’s top drivers. Even Earnhardt was among those who spun early on, slumping to a 19th-place finish some 49 laps off the lead pack.
But while the race featured just 11 lead changes, the final 10 miles came down to a fierce, four-way battle to the end between Davey Allison, Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd which made you forget about all that early mess. Lap after lap, the four cars did battle inches apart, getting side-by-side with each other while unable to make a clean pass for position at the same time. Finally, on the white-flag lap fourth-place Rudd spun Marlin down the backstretch, opening up some breathing room for the top two of Martin and Allison. Martin’s No. 6 car charged hard through turns 3 and 4, sticking his Ford right down the white line and pushing his car up towards Allison’s driver-side door. Down the front straightaway they came, Martin’s momentum pulling him up alongside the No. 28 car in a matter of seconds… leaving them in a photo finish at the line.
When officials took a second look, it was Allison in front at the checkered flag… but only by a grand total of about eight inches. It stands as one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history to this day; and most importantly, both men raced clean at a racetrack that’s known for doing whatever it takes to win. Just goes to show you that not every race here needs to be contested by pounding someone else’s back bumper…
Also of note from this weekend, Ernie Irvan won his first pole with Morgan-McClure’s No. 4, an outfit in which he’d end up winning the Daytona 500 and a half-dozen other races in just under four years with the team. Leading 16 laps, it was the first glimpse of what we’d see from what would become one of the sport’s best drivers of the 1990s.
4. 2002 Sharpie 500
While Jeff Gordon’s winless streak is the talk of the town these days, it isn’t the only drought he’s had in his legendary career. In 2002, the 15-year vet was going through an ugly divorce that may have arguably translated into his on-track performance – heading into the Bristol Night Race, the No. 24 team was fifth in points but hadn’t visited victory lane in almost a year. But Gordon wasn’t the only big name who had been struggling over the course of the season. Bristol King Rusty Wallace hadn’t won since the California race in the spring of 2001, enduring a season-long slump while going public on a tumultuous relationship with soon-to-be former teammate Mayfield.
Both men had been looking forward to the August night race to cure what ailed them, and as the race unfolded, it was clear each had a car capable of running up front. The 500 laps weren’t always pretty throughout (just 10 lead changes, similar to the 1990 race described above), but when push came to shove, those two did battle in a finish most everyone remembers. As the laps wound down, you could sense the desperation coming from two men needing a win to solve their problems – and who were willing to do just about anything to push the issue and make it to Victory Lane.
With Wallace in first but unable to pull far enough from Gordon during the final five laps, it was the Rainbow Warrior who chose the common denominator defining so many of these great Bristol finishes: the bump-and-run. Laying the chrome horn on Wallace with two laps left, Gordon slipped in front and wound up coasting to the checkered flag in the August night race. Afterwards, he was greeted with a shower of boos – remember, at that time Gordon was looked at as the Jimmie Johnson of our sport – in what may have been one of the most unpopular wins he’d had throughout his entire Cup career.
But what really hits me about this race, looking back, is the momentum it sapped out of Rusty Wallace. It would be another year and a half before the No. 2 car visited victory lane again, and he’d win just one more time before hanging up the helmet for good in 2005. His final six starts at Bristol were defined by cars that also faded at the finish – he led 340 more laps at his favorite track, but wound up in the top five only twice.
In the 1980s, Bristol belonged to Darrell Waltrip. In the 1990s, it was Rusty Wallace and – for a time – Jeff Gordon. But this decade, no man has won more at the famed half-mile in Thunder Valley than Kurt Busch. Now driving the famed No. 2 that Wallace took to wins so many times in Tennessee, Busch is looked at as the number one threat here if he’s got a car capable of contending for 500 laps.
It all started back in 2002, when the then 23-year-old collected his first Cup victory during the spring race. Passing Earnhardt Jr. for the lead on lap 411, Busch had to hold off a determined challenge from Spencer over the final 89 laps. At one point, Spencer appeared to get the better of the young driver, taking the lead on lap 444. But Busch responded with a rough tap on the rear bumper, sending Spencer to second and forcing him to eventually settle for a runner-up finish. While Busch was ecstatic that day, it was a move Spencer would never forget, starting up a rivalry that would eventually lead to multiple intentional spinouts over the next 18 months. The feud wouldn’t end until Michigan in August of 2003, with Busch getting punched inside his racecar 18 months later by Spencer after the two traded barbs on the racetrack. It was a move that, in a touch of irony, would wind up getting Spencer suspended for the race he always enjoyed the most – the Bristol night race in August.
But perhaps the most important thing was that a rivalry was started to begin with. Too often these days, everyone in the garage finds everyone else just too likable, a politically correct world that leaves fans unabashedly fighting the current establishment. As these five races show us, a little bit of fierce competition never hurt anyone – and back in the day, no one cared about hurting anyone else’s feelings. One can only hope that in the spring of 2009, we can have one of those memorable races again – the one which brings fans to their feet and cheering from their couch instead of turning off their TV set in disgust.
Let’s cross our fingers.