Fight excitement filled up Bristol
No, Kyle Busch did not get out his car, climb on the roof and tear a Brad Keselowski flag in half in Victory Lane.
As it turned out, they didn't have to. They'd done their job long before the green flag was dropped on the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. And for good measure, they were even kind enough to add an exclamation point -- and a bad word -- mere moments before that green was waved over the field.
On a night when the race to make the Chase fizzled and the drivers atop the points standings couldn't seem to get out of their own way, the WWE-like buildup to Bad Brad vs. Shrub pumped excitement into the World's Fastest Half-Mile. More importantly, it nearly filled up the 160,000-seat racetrack during a season packed with images of empty grandstands.
"I think ole Brad and Kyle probably sold some tickets for tonight's race at the end of last night's race," Bobby Allison said, chuckling.
The living NASCAR legend strolled through the Bristol parking lot and motioned toward the walk-up line forming at Bristol's main ticket office, four hours before the start of the race and in the pouring rain.
"There's nothing a track promoter loves more than a good fight. Or at least the chance that there might be a fight," he said.
That's when Allison recounted the story of The Fight, the most famous throwdown in racing history, when he and brother Donnie took on Cale Yarborough at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500. Live on CBS Sports.
"In the long run, the big winner in that deal was NASCAR. But in the short run, it was easy to know who the biggest winner was. I remember driving east for the race the following weekend. All I could think was, 'Man, I bet we have sold a lot of tickets for Rockingham!'"
All the motorsports marketing genius in the world -- be it TV commercials, ticket discounts or prerace fireworks -- still can't match the greatest NASCAR magic of them all. A good old fashioned "I hate that freaking guy so I'm going to wreck him" rivalry.
When Dale Earnhardt punted old rivals Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte at Bristol in 1995, the Southern 500 at Darlington the following weekend was a sellout. Four years later Earnhardt booted Labonte again. Again Darlington was a sellout, prompting then-track president Jim Hunter to declare that he would greet The Intimidator and Texas Terry at the tunnel with "a thank you note and boxing gloves."
At Bristol, the good fortune of potential fisticuffs was in effect again. Despite the showers that lasted all morning and early afternoon, Saturday night's crowd was larger than expected, certainly much larger than the racetrack's March event. And it didn't take a track promoter to figure out what created the sudden last-minute surge of interest.
In the campgrounds and turnstiles, fans were still buzzing about the Friday night Nationwide Series incident between Busch and Keselowski. Callers broke it down on sports talk radio. A camper parked near the Speedway's South Gate was covered in blankets, spray-painted with the words "BRAD'S CRYING TOWELS." Across the street, a poster of Busch was affixed with female undergarments and devil horns. Between them, the road was packed with more traffic than expected. And if an unofficial poll of the walkup crowd was any indication, NASCAR's newest rivalry had more than a little to do with that.
"We weren't coming," conceded Nashville resident Mark Davis, standing in line at the ticket office outside Turn 2 with his wife and two teenaged sons. "But when that deal happened last night, I looked at my boys and said, 'Wonder if Bristol has any tickets available for tomorrow night?'"
"It's so close to a sellout it's almost painful," said one track official. When asked if Brad vs. Kyle provided a last-minute boost in sales, the response was simple: "It sure didn't hurt."
In case you missed it, on Friday night the two raced side-by-side for the lead in nail-biting fashion before Keselowski took the lead with what appeared to be an old fashioned Bristol bump and run. Busch didn't see it that way and returned the favor, though with much more force, sending Keselowski spinning to retake the lead and grab the win. After the race, both fired verbal shots over the track public address system, radio and television. Busch seemed to revel in the shower of boos, while Keselowski once again unwittingly (as far as we know) played the role of victim.
What's more, the fires were stoked during prerace driver introductions, NASCAR's ultimate gauge of driver popularity and always quite the production at Bristol. Busch, the defending race champion, welcomed a deafening chorus of boos with outstretched arms, declaring over the PA system, "Y'all are so loving I'm ready to win it again!"
Four drivers later, Keselowski grabbed the microphone and shouted "Kyle Busch is an ass!"
From there, it built. AJ Allmendinger told the crowd, "I just hope I'm ahead of Kyle and Brad when this all goes down tonight."
He was followed by Tony Stewart, who announced that he disagreed with Allmendinger. "I do want to be around Brad and Kyle when they get together because I want to see a good wreck!"
Then Carl Edwards, the next-to-last driver to be introduced and the last driver to have a lengthy feud with Keselowski, came to out to his handpicked introduction music, War's 1975 hit "Why Can't We Be Friends?"
During the parade laps, track PA announcers Tom Taylor and David McGee took turns eliciting boos and cheers with trade-off mentions of the two drivers' names. Once the race started, few in attendance watched Jimmie Johnson up front. Instead, they watched Keselowski's No. 12 Dodge follow in the tire tracks of Busch's No. 18 Toyota for the race's first 20 laps. Most drivers took Allmendinger's advice and gave the pair a wide berth in case something did indeed go down.
Even as Busch led big throughout the middle stanza of the race, Twitter crackled with debate over whether or not Keselowski, struggling to stay on the lead lap, might wreck Busch as he put his rival a lap down. Perhaps it would be enough to prevent Busch from making history, to keep him from becoming the first driver to win three major NASCAR races in one weekend?
In the end, nothing happened. The tension dissipated over the course of 500 laps and after the first 20 laps they were never close enough to let any real drama unfold. When Busch lapped Keselowski with 120 laps remaining, the crowd did come to its feet in anticipation and were treated to four laps of side-by-side racing. But Busch soon pulled away. In his postrace interviews, Busch said he hadn't thought much about catching retaliation from Keselowski (who is still on probation from the Edwards mess) once he cleared the No. 12 in the early stages and motored on.
"I sure thought about it," admitted Busch's boss, Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs. "And judging by the way the crowd stood up whenever they were near each other, they thought about it too."
And that was all that mattered to the track operators, both at Bristol and beyond.
Sitting high atop Bristol were executives from Atlanta Motor Speedway, which will host the next NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Atlanta held the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend. Track president Ed Clark watched, listened and beamed. No, they clearly weren't going to wreck one another tonight. But that just means they still might do it on down the road.
"Will their rivalry carry over to our place? I don't know," Clark said. Then he smiled slyly and echoed the sentiment of Bobby Allison, Jim Hunter and his Bristol colleagues.
"It can't hurt, can it?"
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.