From Denny Hamlin vs. Joey Logano to Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte, watch, read and remember Thunder Valley's best
There is just something about Bristol Motor Speedway -- the tight confines, the coliseum setting, the lights blazing and camera flashes popping after dark. Few tracks ignite anger and aggravation more regularly than the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, where high speeds and close quarters can combine to create chaos.
The place just has an atmosphere about it, one that seems to heighten tension as easily as the fog rolls in from the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s especially true when darkness falls, and sparks -- both real and metaphorical -- fly during the facility’s night race, an annual fiesta of tempers and torn sheet metal that can test a competitor’s mettle as much as his machine.
On Saturday night, the curtain will be drawn back once again. Drivers will be introduced to clips from their favorite songs, engines will be fired and possibilities will swirl. And by the end of the evening, perhaps another item will be added to the ever-expanding list of indelible Bristol memories, those wins, losses, scuffles and skirmishes that have made the track what it is.
For the moment, though, the past provides plenty to work with. Entering this year’s edition of the Irwin Tools Night Race, here are the top 10 moments in Bristol Motor Speedway history.
10. Hamlin vs. Logano, 2013 spring race. By Bristol standards, it wasn’t the most combustible of encounters, but it certainly set the stage for a larger confrontation to come. Unhappy with the way Logano was racing him, Denny Hamlin resorted to the bumper and sent the No. 22 car spinning. “I meant to run into him, didn’t mean to spin him out,” Hamlin said. Afterward Joey Logano stormed over to the No. 11 and stuck his head inside the car before crewmen pulled him away. “He said he was coming for me,” Hamlin said, words that took on a more serious context one week later -- when final-lap contact between the same two drivers resulted in a crash and a back injury that would sideline Hamlin for a month.
9. Keselowski vs. Busch, 2010 night race. Brad Keselowski certainly set the tone for the night when he grabbed the microphone to introduce himself, and then slammed someone else. “Kyle Busch is an ass!” he said, still stinging from what he thought was a deliberate takeout on Busch’s part in the Nationwide Series race one night earlier. Unsurprisingly, the crowd ate it up. But Busch got the last laugh, outrunning David Reutimann to win the race and finish off the first -- and still only -- tripleheader sweep in NASCAR history. Keselowski, meanwhile, finished 19th.
8. Edwards vs. Busch, 2008 night race. What started on the race track carried over to the cool-down lap, and the public-address system after the event. Carl Edwards bumped Busch out of the way to grab the lead with 30 laps remaining, and Busch bumped Edwards after the race. Edwards then spun Busch, did his trademark victory backflip, and after exiting their cars, the two drivers proceeded to trade verbal shots in interviews. Busch called Edwards “Mr. Ed,” Edwards called it payback for a Nationwide race at Richmond, and the crowd ate it up.
7. Gordon vs. Kenseth, 2006 spring race. What is it about Bristol that can turn even the most mild-mannered of drivers into raving lunatics? That certainly seemed the case in 2006. Jeff Gordon had just passed Matt Kenseth for third place on the final lap when contact from the No. 17 car sent his No. 24 spinning. They had also made contact earlier in the race, and afterward, two of the nicest guys in the sport went at it. Gordon exited his car on pit road, and with his helmet still on, went right at Kenseth and delivered a two-handed shove. Officials stepped in as the two drivers barked at one another. “I wasn’t happy about it,” Gordon said later, “and I showed him after the race.”
6. Harvick vs. Biffle, 2002 spring Nationwide Series race. The craziness at Bristol isn’t confined to Sprint Cup Series events. Two of NASCAR’s best went at one another following a Nationwide event in 2002, sparked when contact from Greg Biffle sent Kevin Harvick hard into the wall. Harvick got out of his car and went to Biffle’s pit stall. “I’ll be waiting when he comes in here,” he said, and he was, and the result was a nose-to-nose exchange that led to Harvick getting summoned to the series hauler “I didn’t do it on purpose. That’s just racing at Bristol,” Biffle said. “Biffle’s an idiot,” Harvick replied.
5. Stewart vs. Kenseth, 2012 night race. Once more, it’s Kenseth in the middle of the maelstrom, this time as he and Tony Stewart battle for the lead a year ago. The cars raced wheel-to-wheel, then touched, then turned sideways and began a long slide into the wall. Stewart exited his car on pit road, where he waited … and waited … and waited for Kenseth to come down before launching his helmet in a two-handed sling that bonked the No. 17 car square on the nose. The crowd went nuts, which Stewart recognized by whipping his fist into the air. “I’m going to run over him every chance I get for the rest of the year,” Stewart says. Get well soon, Tony. We miss you.
4. Gordon vs. Wallace, 1997 spring race. In the first of a number of memorable Bristol confrontations between the two champions, Wallace led 240 laps at his best track -- but not the last one. Gordon patiently stalked Wallace, tried several times to get around, and then finally did by using the bump-and-run on the final lap, as Wallace drifted up the track slightly due to lapped traffic. It was an epic two-man battle that left Gordon pumping his fist in Victory Lane. “Got one of those love taps,” said Wallace, who’d have to wait until Richmond to exact a measure of revenge.
3. Everybody vs. Everybody, 2002 night race. Oh, goodness. Where to begin? If there was one night that summed up everything Bristol was about, it was this one. There must have been something in the water. How else to explain Mr. Cool, Jimmie Johnson, getting so mad at Robby Gordon that he unleashed a single-digit salute? Or Ward Burton getting so agitated at Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he threw his shoe heat shields at NASCAR’s most popular driver? Or Elliott Sadler getting so angry over an accident that he punched the side of an ambulance? This was theatre on a grand scale, topped by -- what else -- Gordon once again bumping Wallace out of the way to win.
2. Earnhardt vs. Labonte vs. Wallace, 1995 night race. In a precursor to a more famous showdown between the two yet to come, Dale Earnhardt hunted down Terry Labonte, narrowing a gap of over a second to just a few feet by the final lap. Earnhardt tried the bump-and-run, but tried it too late -- Labonte’s car slid across the finish line sideways, and slammed head-on into the wall just past the flag stand. While Labonte drove his wrecked and smoking No. 5 to Victory Lane, Earnhardt exited the No. 3 to find an angry Rusty Wallace waiting on him. Earnhardt had dumped Wallace 30 laps into the event, and the two got into a heated exchange that included Wallace tossing a water bottle at the Intimidator. Just another night at Bristol.
1. Earnhardt vs. Labonte, 1999 night race. The scene: Earnhardt, in the lead and on old tires. Labonte, in fifth and with fresh rubber. The stage was set for Bristol’s most iconic moment, which unfolded after Labonte charged to the lead and squeezed low past Earnhardt at the white flag. Two corners later, chaos -- Earnhardt used the bumper to turn the No. 5 car, which spun into traffic and collected several other vehicles in its wake. Earnhardt recorded a victory that was one of his most memorable, but also most unpopular. “Listen to the crowd,” a TV commentator says, “140,000 people booing him and giving him the bird. They weren’t happy with that one, and they weren’t the only ones.”
Labonte finished eighth, and Earnhardt was almost sheepish in Victory Lane -- where he uttered the most famous words ever spoken at Bristol. “I didn’t mean to turn him around,” the Intimidator said. “I meant to rattle his cage."