The Kool-Aid Man on the hood of Michael Waltrip’s No. 30 Pontiac probably didn’t let loose with an “Oh Yeah!!!” after busting through the wall at Bristol in a Grand National race back in 1990. Michael was knocked a little loopy – well, more so than usual – giving quite a scare to everyone in attendance and watching on TV. Sure, people can joke about it now, but at the time it was say-a-prayer moment for all involved.
—by Vito Pugliese
11. 1994: Mark Martin vs. The Flagman
Before Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing decided to launch an all-out assault on the minor leagues of NASCAR a few years ago, Mark Martin’s No. 60 Winn-Dixie Ford was the scourge of what was then the Busch Grand National Series. Martin put on a clinic, leading 195 of the 250 laps on this day in Bristol, while a late-race crash between Hermie Sadler and Robert Pressley saw the race concluding under caution – no green-white-checker finishes in those days. As the field was coming up to congratulate Martin, he was shifting gears, preparing to go run final practice in his Cup car. He had radio problems all day, and Jack Roush who would spot for him, was on his way down off the stand. Martin ducked to find Victory Lane one lap early, surrendering the win to eventual 1994 champ David Green. Ironically, it would be Green’s only win of his title year.
10. 2002: “Hey, you’re tearin’ our s*%! up!”
Whether he was grabbing a fistful of Tony Stewart’s uniform at Daytona, walking into traffic like Harry Callahan to blast a helmet at Michael Waltrip or cleaning house in Montreal, nobody would ever accuse Robby Gordon of laying down. In 2002, driving for Richard Childress, Gordon got into it with the sport’s new most popular driver. Junior had some choice words for Robby as well. Not as good as his “cue ball-headed fool” blast on Todd Bodine, but good nonetheless. He does lack some originality for copying Tony Stewart’s pit road PIT maneuver on Jeff Gordon, but worthy nonetheless. Doesn’t sound like the No. 31’s spotter was too cool with it however. Watch it now.
9. 1991: Rusty survives
Darrell Waltrip was the undisputed king of Bristol Motor Speedway until Rusty Wallace showed up. Ernie Irvan was the next up-and-comer, and had just collected his first career victory the prior race at Bristol in August 1990. This race was an eventful one, including a caution for an umbrella being blown onto the track and Sterling Marlin bailing out of his car, while on fire; Sterling that is – not just the car. A rain shower with 50 laps to go set up the final fight to the finish in another classic Bristol showdown that made this one of the toughest tickets in motorsports to get.
8. 2007: “This car sucks!”
It was the debut race for the Car of Tomorrow — a safe test since aerodynamics typically aren’t the deciding factor on a short track like Bristol — and the CoT, as hearty and ungainly as it was, had no problem beating and banging into other cars or the wall. Kyle Busch had all he could handle with Jeff Burton in the closing laps, but being Burton, at least he knew he was going to get a fair fight. If only Kyle had been so generous to the new car in Victory Lane. You want to know why you were fined, Denny? It stems from what Kyle said later in the winner’s circle.
7. 2002: Old School/New School
One of the reasons why Bristol is such a popular track is the throwback nature it possesses. Tempers can flare and paybacks are to be expected, as NASCAR was built on bullrings, not 1.5-mile cookie cutters and 200 mph corner-entry speeds. In March 2001, the sport and fans were reeling from the loss of Dale Earnhardt, so the Food City 500 was a welcome race — and two of NASCAR’s most legendary, respected and iconic teams were battling for the win. Pat Tryson made the call to keep Elliott Sadler out on old tires in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford as he held off John Andretti in The King’s No. 43 Dodge for the final 70 laps. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon punts Tony Stewart late in the going and Smoke takes exception on pit road. Perhaps a little carry over from Watkins Glen, 2000.
6. 2008: Stewart vs. Harvick vs. Hamlin vs. Burton
Not sure what looked more out of place – the rear wing on the CoT, Tony Stewart’s ode to Steve Perry coif, or Smoke driving a Toyota. Whichever, both Stewart’s and teammate Denny Hamlin’s cars were stumbling and fumbling around with fuel pick up problems after dominating the race, leading a combined 365 of 500 laps. Harvick and Stewart get together on the last lap, which raised some questions if any of that was some residual spill-over from their tangle at The Brickyard 400 a year earlier. Sounds like Harvick had more issues with his spotter than Stewart, and five years later, Harvick has signed on to drive for Stewart in 2014.
5. 1997: The Bump ‘N’ Run
It’s hard to pinpoint at what place in time running into a guy on the last lap to pass him became an acceptable form of racing in NASCAR. Actually, no it’s not. It’s right here at Bristol in 1997. While Gordon’s “bump and run” is a bit innocuous compared to some of the later “dump and runs” that would follow, this helped set the stage for a number of finishes of less than honorable outcomes in years to come. Wallace had led 240 laps that day, including 85 of the final 86 laps; but not the one that counted.
4. 2006: Gordon’s pit road rage
Dicing with Matt Kenseth in the final laps of the Food City 500, Kurt Busch was on his way to victory during a wintery race weekend that saw brother Kyle firing snowballs into the crowd. Jeff Gordon gets turned on the final lap, and then commits the ultimate tough-guy no-no: goes after a helmet-less guy who’s apologizing, while wearing a helmet. Between Kenseth, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t Gordon taken a swing at?
3. 1990: Davey Allison vs. Mark Martin
In the days before electronic timing and scoring, this was one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. The official margin of victory is listed as eight inches, though it’s a good thing ESPN had a camera trained on the start-finish line and not Sterling Marlin’s Oldsmobile spinning down the backstretch. This was Bristol before it was concrete, carved up, and cobbled up with variable banking. Though Martin may not have won this one, at least he didn’t plow into the back of Allison and pat himself on the back for it afterwards. Also, this may be the first recorded use of term “It’s a drag race!” to describe the run to the checkers.
2. 2002: Harmon vs. Wall vs. Sauter
There are some crashes in motorsports that stick in your mind forever — and this is one of them. Mike Harmon, a then Busch Series regular from Alabama, crashed in the same spot as Michael Waltrip 12 years earlier, during practice. As the exploded remains of his car lay on the track, along comes Johnny Sauter with nowhere to go, driving through the pile of wreckage, missing an exposed Harmon by inches. Sauter has been pretty vocal about his Christian and Catholic convictions of late — perhaps this is one of those turning points that helped shape his life. Safe to say the same would go for Harmon as well.
1. 1993: Rusty wins one for Alan
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the passing of 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki. The underdog in the Underbird got to the pinnacle of the sport racing on the short tracks of the Midwest in the ASA Series, alongside the likes of Mark Martin, Dick Trickle and Rusty Wallace. After perishing in an airplane crash following a sponsor event, the Hooters No. 7 transporter left the track early, taking the checkered flag as it exited. It was a somber rainy weekend in Bristol, and nobody felt much like being there. Wallace, however, rose to the occasion, leading 376 of 500 laps and holding off Dale Earnhardt Sr. by just under a second. Wallace dedicated the win to Kulwicki and his team, celebrating with what Alan described as his “Polish Victory Lap” after his first career win at Phoenix in 1988.
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