Legends preparing to strap in
Invite a bunch of retired NASCAR drivers to run in a charity race, and all of a sudden they're not acting very retired -- and they're jawing.
Junior Johnson, at 77 the oldest driver in the field for the 35-lap Saturday Night Special late-model race at storied Bristol Motor Speedway this Saturday, is back to the aw-shucks verbal sandbagging of his days as a driver and then as an owner.
"It's a charity thing, is the reason I'm driving in it," said Johnson, the living legend moonshine runner turned racer.
Yeah, well, "I heard Junior is building a new car for that race and has Ray Evernham working on it," said David Pearson, 74, who'll have to sit out the actual racing with a bad back but will attend.
"That's not true," Johnson fired back. "My boy [Robert Johnson III, 15] has been running late models and I'm using one of his."
Oh. A Junior Johnson-prepared car that already has been race-tested.
And no, Evernham, once voted best NASCAR crew chief of all time by the media, isn't working on Johnson's car.
"Ray's going to be my teammate," said Rusty Wallace, a nine-time winner at Bristol. "He'll be driving in the celebrity race [a 15-lapper for notable NASCAR personalities other than drivers], wearing a blue Miller Lite uniform just like mine."
Yes, Wallace, 52, has gone out and gotten sponsorship for this race, from his longtime backer in the Cup series, Miller Brewing Co. That lends credence to Pearson's report that "Rusty's building a new car too."
"That's right," Wallace confirmed. "I am building a new car for this race."
Because "This ain't gonna be no ride-around deal," Wallace said. "I think they're all coming with their game."
"I still know how," said Cale Yarborough, another nine-time Bristol winner, who'll turn 70 on March 27. "You know it's going to be competitive, with the people who are in it."
Yarborough, who in his time was one of the fittest drivers in NASCAR -- mostly by doing heavy farm work on a daily basis -- is a bit frustrated that he hasn't been able to exercise much because of recent surgery to remove calcium deposits from his right foot.
"I'm going to have to get back on it these next couple of weeks" to be back in racing shape, he said.
Eleven drivers in the field have won either Cup or Nationwide races at Bristol, and several have made singularly legendary marks there.
Pearson's son Larry, 55, will drive in place of the Silver Fox.
If the elder Pearson could be in it, "It wouldn't matter who it is" in the field, he'd try to win it -- "I'd sure do my best," he said.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Yarborough said. "We'll have a good time."
Johnson and Pearson both started the first Bristol Cup race, in 1961.
Johnson has kept in practice, running antique-car races in his old stock cars in an annual event at Goodwood, England. "You run pretty fast over there," he said.
For this race, though, Johnson cautioned "You want to be pretty careful not to get your head skinned up."
But, "I expect Junior to get out there and hammer down," Wallace said.
Even for fun and charity, "Any time you get in a race car, you could get banged up," Yarborough pointed out. "The group that's going to be there will be competitive, but we'll probably play it pretty safe."
Wallace's car will be ready this week, and "I'm going to take it to Bristol next Tuesday to test," he said.
Wait a minute -- test? That's not even legal for active NASCAR drivers anymore.
Yeah, but "The others are going to be testing at various tracks," Wallace said.
Besides, Wallace, as an ESPN commentator, has special duties in the race.
"I'm carrying the in-car ESPN camera, and I'm the in-race reporter," he said.
There's one enormous disappointment for all drivers concerned.
"Everybody wanted to race against Darrell Waltrip," Wallace said of the all-time winner at Bristol, with 12 Cup victories there, 10 of those in Johnson-owned cars.
But Waltrip had to pull out of the race because of broadcasting commitments with Fox.
"After years with Junior Johnson as my boss, I was excited about rubbing fenders with him," Waltrip said. "But sometimes things are unavoidable."
Wallace won nine times in 44 starts at Bristol, beginning in 1987. Yarborough had an even better winning percentage there, with nine victories in just 29 starts. In all 17 of the races Yarborough finished at Bristol, he was in the top five. He also won nine poles.
Labonte co-starred with Dale Earnhardt in Bristol's two most famous finishes. In 1995, Labonte crossed the finish line sideways but victorious after being slammed by Earnhardt on the last lap. In 1999, again rammed by Earnhardt, Labonte was left wrecked and fuming while Earnhardt went on to win.
Marlin -- who is from Columbia, Tenn., near Nashville -- was the favorite-son driver at Bristol throughout his 30-year driving career but got only one win there, in a Nationwide race in 2000. Marlin's best shot at a Cup win there, in 1987, ended when Earnhardt rear-ended and wrecked him late in the race.
Spencer won two Nationwide Series races at Bristol, but might be remembered best for the Cup race he missed there in August 2003, while under suspension for punching Kurt Busch the previous Sunday.
In the Bristol grandstands, while Busch won the race, fans displayed "Free Jimmy" placards on behalf of their favorite tough guy on and off the track.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.