Commentary

When the lights come on at Bristol, all bets are off

Something peculiar happens when the lights come on at Bristol Motor Speedway. Tempers flare, egos inflate, and survival instincts take center stage. Ryan McGee chronicles the five most memorable throwdowns in Thunder Valley history.

Updated: August 25, 2007, 5:54 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

A knife fight in a closet.

Flying fighter jets in a high school gymnasium.

A bunkhouse stampede in your little brother's bedroom.

Those are the descriptions that have been used over the years to convey the feeling of racing at the Bristol Motor Speedway, a concrete cereal bowl banked higher than Daytona but, at a half-mile in length, small enough to fit into your cul-de-sac.

Thunder Valley, USA.

Where Jeff Gordon shoved Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick did a flying leap onto Greg Biffle's head and Juan Montoya's reaction after his first competitive lap was, "You have got to be @#!$ kidding me."

And all those moments took place in the spring, in races run while the sun is still shining. When August arrives and the lights come on, the animals truly come out to play.

"It's primal," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, Bristol's corporate sister track. "It goes back to primitive man. At night, your survival instincts come out. Your mind and your eyes become extra sensitive, extra aware, and ready to pounce."

When the Sharpie 500 pounces Saturday night, it will mark the 30th Nextel Cup night race in Bristol Motor Speedway history. So, what were the five most memorable Thunder Valley Throwdowns in these two-plus decades of artificial illumination? Glad you asked, because we just happen to have the answers.

5. 1978 Volunteer 500: Let There Be Light

The inaugural Bristol night race was won by Cale Yarborough in a beat-down, leading 327 of 500 laps and winning his fifth BMS race in six tries. After the checkered flag, there was nearly a second beat-down, as Darrell Waltrip made it a point to express some displeasure with Lennie Pond after a pair of fender benders.

The two had banged on each other so maliciously in the middle stages of the race that Pond's boss, Harry Ranier, ordered his driver to pull off the track because "I don't tolerate 100-mph grudge matches." The source of the grudge: Pond believed that Waltrip was lobbying behind the scenes to take his ride with Ranier. Turns out he was right.

The Bristol lights had barely even been warmed up, but a tone had been set that lasts to this day. Forty-three cars plus August heat plus Saturday night short-track racing equals something crazy going down.

4. 1998 Food City 250: The Busch Bash

Our countdown continues with a visit to the Busch Series. A late-race restart with 10 to go had bunched up a field comprising highly experienced Cup veterans (Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader), up-and-coming youngsters (Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and full-time Busch Series aces (Kevin Lepage, Phil Parsons, Elton Sawyer).

Rolling off Turn 4 with 10 to go, all hell broke loose. Robert Pressley's No. 59 Kingsford Charcoal machine got some help from Stewart, and the ensuing spin took out nine of the remaining 15 cars that were on the lead lap. Pressley's car caught on fire, and Sawyer's car got airborne. Amid a cloud of fire smoke and spewing fire extinguishers, most of the drivers stumbled out into the darkness while Pressley went looking for Stewart to have "a chat."

Lepage won the race, which featured 10 cautions that involved 36 of the 43 cars entered. From Victory Lane, Lepage surveyed the scene and said, "It looks like a plane crashed on the frontstretch."

3. 1990 Busch 500: It's Not The Heat …

One of the reasons for adding lights to the Bristol Motor Speedway was to avoid the August heat of eastern Tennessee. For the most part, that plan has worked. On Aug. 25, 1990, it did not. Thirty-two drivers started the Bud 500 in the late afternoon, but by the middle stages of the race, the brutal humidity had that number withering in a hurry. Five cars pulled off the track because their drivers were too weak to go on, and three of those had to be parked because there weren't enough replacement drivers to take over.

Recalls Kyle Petty, "Dad was really struggling with the heat, so he pulled off and they put someone else in his car. Then I couldn't take anymore, so I had to pull in and my guys couldn't find a sub. By this time, Dad thinks he's OK, so he gets in my car to relieve me and then ends up having to come back again in a little while later. It was complete chaos."

In the end, Ernie Irvan earned his first Cup win, driving the hometown-owned No. 4 Chevy of Morgan-McClure. Rusty Wallace made him work for it, racing door-to-door over the closing laps before losing by .21 seconds.

"I hate to admit this," Rusty said at the time. "But I am worn out. My energy is shot, and that never happens to me."

2. 1999 Goody's 500: Back In Black

Earnhardt fans point to this night as the glorious evening when The Intimidator was reborn. Terry Labonte fans remember it as one of the great race robberies in NASCAR history.

The seven-time Cup champ was thrashing to get out of the worst funk of his brilliant career, having failed to win a non-restrictor-plate race in more than three years. The Ice Man was looking to snap a 17-race winless streak of his own.

In the closing lap, Earnhardt tried to hold off Labonte with old tires versus new. With less than two laps remaining, Texas Terry took the lead. With the white flag waving, Earnhardt took it back, spinning his old rival off Turn 2 in what looked like a blatant cheap shot. At least the crowd thought so, sending down a rain of boos that lasted for nearly half an hour and, although he tried to laugh it off, left Dale visibly rattled.

"I was sitting there, wrecked and angry," Labonte recalls now. "And I was trying to get my car into reverse because when Dale came back around on his victory lap I was going to ram the hell out of him. I thought, 'Yeah, that No. 3 car might be going to Victory Lane, but it's going to do it with the No. 5 stuck in its door.' "

Alas, we were denied the moment by a car too wrecked to start. Had Terry pulled it off, this would have been moment No. 1. Instead, we flash back to four years earlier. …

1. 1995 Goody's 500: Terry vs. Dale, Round 1

When the night started, it seemed as though all anyone was going to remember was the rain, which delayed the start of the race and caused us to pause in the middle of it. But the good stuff on the track soon made everyone forget the wet stuff off it.

It began in the early stages, when Earnhardt put a bumper to Rusty Wallace, his greatest rival at the time, and sent the No. 2 Miller Pontiac into the wall. The shot looked suspicious to NASCAR, which black-flagged Earnhardt and sent him to the back of the field.

Several hundred laps -- and several hours -- later, The Intimidator was reeling in the leader with just a few turns to go. His target? Labonte. As the No. 5 Chevy approached the finish line, the No. 3 Chevy gave it a blast to the rear bumper, sending Labonte beneath the checkered flag completely sideways and into the wall.

Labonte drove his destroyed machine into Victory Lane, climbing out to assess the damage with a laugh, "I told Rick [Hendrick] that at least I was nice enough to win the race so he could afford to get the car fixed."

Meanwhile, Earnhardt was greeted in the garage by Wallace, who got into Dale's face with a point and a promise. "I'm not forgetting this s---!" The Man in Black responded with his trademark smile, which resulted in Wallace drilling him with a water bottle as the two men were separated by their crews and NASCAR officials.

Just another night in Thunder Valley, where the lights come on and all bets are off.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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