Top 10 spring battles at Bristol
March 12, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
There were no lights, there were no high banks; there was, as yet, no need to blow the top off a nearby mountain to accommodate a seating expansion. What was then called Bristol International Speedway was very much a simple short track in 1961, when 17-year-old Brenda Lee sang the national anthem before the facility's inaugural NASCAR premier-series race. But there were hints of the beast to come -- credited winner Jack Smith was pulled from his car halfway through with heat blisters, and only 19 vehicles made it to the finish.
So yes, the unforgiving animal we know now as Bristol Motor Speedway has always been there, lurking amid those smoky hills. Eventually, the corner banking was raised to dizzying levels; lights were added to heighten the spectacle; speeds increased and concrete was put down and grandstands climbed toward the sky. It all combined to create the atmosphere and the phenomenon of Bristol -- but it all began beneath the unflinching east Tennessee sun.
Indeed, Bristol's day race has compiled a legacy that can stand up against that of any other event, including a certain August edition under the lights at the same venue. Bent sheet metal, hurt feelings, physical altercations, lingering disputes, gripping runs to the finish -- they've all unfolded in the daytime, further crafting the character of a facility that adds to its reputation with every passing year. That was certainly the case last spring, when conflict on the track continued off it, and picked again seven days later, with season-altering results.
Another memorable episode could very well unfold Sunday, when the Sprint Cup Series takes to the high banks once again. Until then, here are the top 10 battles in the Bristol springtime.
10. Kyle Busch vs. Jeff Burton, 2007
The vehicle then known as the Car of Tomorrow may have had its detractors, but it certainly helped put on a thrilling finish to its inaugural event. Kyle Busch led the final 20 laps, but he had to withstand a green-white-checkered finish after David Ragan spun on the backstretch. In an era of single-file restarts, Jeff Burton surged past Jeff Gordon on the outside to take second, got to Busch's rear bumper, applied a few bumps -- but was unable to get past. "All I know is, Kyle Busch better be glad that's Jeff Burton behind him," Darrell Waltrip opined on Fox television. It was one of those rare days at Bristol when sportsmanship reigned.
9. Jeff Gordon vs. Tony Stewart, 2001
Sportsmanship? Forget about it. Elliott Sadler may have ultimately won the day, stretching his tires to the limit to claim his first premier-series victory, and deliver Wood Brothers Racing its first triumph in eight years. But Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart stole the show as they battled for fourth on the final lap. Stewart moved down the track, Gordon didn't budge, and the orange No. 20 car went spinning as a result. "I don't see anything wrong with what I did," Gordon said afterward. Stewart got in one retaliatory shot, turning the No. 24 on pit road following the checkered flag. "Doesn't surprise me at all," Gordon added with a laugh.
8. Kevin Harvick vs. Greg Biffle, 2002
Not even what is now known as the Nationwide Series was immune from the madness at Bristol. After being punted into the wall by Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick nonchalantly walked across the track and took a seat in the garage area. "I'll be waiting when he comes in here," he told reporters, and indeed he was -- Harvick went right after Biffle following the race, grabbing his collar and going to nose-to-nose in a heated exchange with his rival until the two were pulled apart. "Just a racing deal," Biffle called the latest in a series of run-ins between two drivers who seemed to respect one another, but nonetheless had their differences.
7. Mark Martin vs. himself, 1994
There was no fight, no crash, no argument -- just one of the more boggling mistakes in NASCAR history. Leading the field under caution in the era before the green-white-checkered, Mark Martin was coasting to yet another win in what is now known as the Nationwide Series. So he pulled off the track and headed toward Victory Lane -- one lap short of the finish. His radio had been on the fritz, and spotter Jack Roush had been making his way down to the infield, but Martin took all the blame himself. "Stupidest thing I've ever done," he said. David Green proved the beneficiary, claiming the lone race win of his championship season. "Tough way to win one," Green said.
6. Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth, 2006
Otherwise mild-mannered Jeff Gordon has been in the middle of the maelstrom more than a few times at Bristol, and that was certainly the case in 2006. Battling with Matt Kenseth for top-five position late in the race, things got physical -- Gordon moved Kenseth out of the way, and the then-Roush driver responded later with a bump that sent Gordon spinning to 21st place. An incensed Gordon climbed out of his car on pit road and, helmet still on, delivered the now-famous two-handed shove. A stunned Kenseth took all the blame, but it was too late. "I left my car to go apologize," he said. "I probably should have waited a little bit longer."
5. Davey Allison vs. Mark Martin, 1990
Before the track was changed to concrete, Bristol's asphalt would often crack at a rate that frustrated general manager Larry Carrier to no end, and required a new coating every few races to keep the surface intact. That certainly didn't impact the racing, though -- which was evident in 1990, when Davey Allison led a line of cars to the while flag, setting up one of the track's most dramatic finishes. Sterling Marlin spun, and Mark Martin charged into the low lane to pull almost even with the leader exiting Turn 4. Allison claimed the victory by eight inches, in one of NASCAR's closest margins before the introduction of electronic scoring.
4. Denny Hamlin vs. Joey Logano, 2013
There was no question where Joey Logano was headed after the race last spring -- right to the car of Denny Hamlin. Logano stuck his head into the window and was pulled away by crewmen, but hard feelings lingered over on-track contact between the two drivers. Upset over an earlier incident, Hamlin spun Logano down the track late in the race when the Penske driver was in contention for the victory. "I will race him the same way he races me," Logano promised, words that took on an ominous tone a week later when the two crashed going for the victory in Fontana -- a wreck that broke a bone in Hamlin's back, forcing him to miss four races.
3. Kurt Busch vs. Jimmy Spencer, 2002
The feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer reached a fever pitch at Bristol, when the upstart bumped the veteran out of the way to take the lead and run away to his first victory at NASCAR's top level. "We won't forget what happened today," an angry Spencer told his team over the radio, which was made clear when his disdain turned physical a year later. The undercard pitted Robby Gordon against Dale Earnhardt Jr., who felt he was held up by the lap-down Gordon, and the two banged fenders after the race. "That’s why it took three or four times for him to finally get into the Cup Series," Earnhardt said, "because he doesn't know what he's doing."
2. Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace, 1997
It is the signature move of Bristol, the bump-and-run, and no one has executed it better than Jeff Gordon. His masterpiece came in 1997, when Gordon spent the latter stages of the event hunting down leader Rusty Wallace. The Penske driver had a dominant car, leading 240 laps before Gordon put the bumper to him in Turn 3 on the final circuit of the race. Using lapped traffic to close the gap on the leader, Gordon's bump was just enough to cause Wallace to bobble up the track and allow the No. 24 car to slip by. This was less a cage-rattling, a more a surgical strike -- Wallace still hung on for second place, not that it was much solace at the time.
1. Rusty Wallace vs. Ernie Irvan, 1991
No crashes, no tempers, no controversy -- just mesmerizing short-track racing at its absolute best, as Rusty Wallace and Ernie Irvan spent the final 20 laps pursuing one another on the half-mile oval. On a surface that was still asphalt, the leaders worked every inch of the track as they swung high and low to pass lapped cars, almost in tandem and never more than a few feet apart. Off the final turn, Irvan delivered a healthy shove to Wallace, pulled down low, and got beside the leader -- but Wallace held on by half a car length to win one of the greatest duels the track has ever seen. The event still stands as proof that drivers don’t need to wreck one another to put on a great Bristol race.