If there is one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event that race fans should aspire to attend at least once, the argument could be made that the August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway rivals even the Daytona 500.
The Daytona 500 has the edge, of course, because of tradition and the fact that, well, it's Daytona.
There are other more prestigious races in NASCAR's top national touring series—the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway immediately come to mind—but there are none that are more fun.
"Bristol is a fun racetrack," Earnhardt said. "I love racing on the short tracks. We don’t get to do a whole lot of it throughout the year so I’m really hoping to just be able to make all the laps. If you are out there making all the laps, you’re going to be enjoying yourself because you can’t run around Bristol without having fun.”
The fact is, you can't attend the race without having fun unless something is wrong with you.
After all, this is the place that brought the NASCAR circuit deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Oreos and other delicacies you never would have thought of or had the guts to try. And if you really want something delicious for the main course, Ridgewood Barbecue is right around the corner from the track. They even let you bring some inside the gates. Roadfood.com once very accurately described Ridgewood's pork as being "as good as it gets."
But let's talk about the racing.
The actual racing at Bristol has been critiqued ad nauseum since a 2007 track repave and a 2012 touch-up that track owner Bruton Smith said was in response to fans who had complained about a lack of bumping and banging following the repave.
The fact is, like at at every other NASCAR track in America, some races are going to be better than others. And the Bristol night race is no exception, although it does have several things going for it that other tracks simply can't match.
First of all, there is always something special about racing at night. The way the lights reflect off the cars, and the sparks occasionally fly from underneath them or whenever there is some bumping and banging, it all adds to it. On a hot August night, it just feels right.
Then there is the short-track aspect of it. Bristol is a mere .533 miles around, and most 500-lap races there feature plenty of jostling for position between the combatants. This, in turn, frequently gets tempers on the rise and one is never quite sure what to expect next.
As the track's slogan has stated, that's "racin' the way it oughta be," which has even inspired at least one country music artist, Colt Ford, to write a song about it.
This was the setting in 2012 when Tony Stewart slung his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car during caution after the two had banged into each other, with Stewart's car getting the worst of it. This is where Brad Keselowski grabbed the microphone during pre-race ceremonies in 2010 and set the tone for the evening by declaring (per NASCAR.com), "Kyle Busch is an ass!"
Busch got the last word that night, as he won the race. In fact, he's won quite a few of these—three of the last five, to be exact. There is something to the fact that perhaps no one in the sport is more fun for fans of other drivers to root against than Busch, yet you need the guy in the dark hat to be good at a place to really get into cheering against him.
Kyle Busch plays that role well for the Bristol night race. And before him, the late Dale Earnhardt did it.
This is where the Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte mixed it up in 1995, and where Earnhardt turned Labonte in front of the field coming to the checkered flag in 1999. That led to one of the Intimidator's most famous quotes, when he told reporters afterward (per NASCAR.com): “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage."
In short, emotions run high at Bristol, and oftentimes at night, they particularly run amok. Throw in the fact that this year there are only three races left until the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, with several drivers more desperate than ever to get to Victory Lane, and you get the feeling that something really crazy and entertaining could happen this Saturday night.
Former driver Jimmy Spencer was asked once prior to a race at Bristol what made the place so special. Spencer took a look around at the stands, which were filling to capacity (which, at the time in 2001, was 147,000) and put it in perspective that still holds up today, 13 years later.
"The one thing this sport was raised on was good, close competition," Spencer said, as noted in the book The Wildest Ride. "And you can't pick any better, tougher track to have that than Bristol. And the fans, they go wild at this place.
Spencer continued: "As for the drivers, there are two ways of leaving this event; you're either pretty happy or you're very upset. I've been there and can tell you there's no other way. You don't say, 'Yeah, we had a decent day.' You're either like, 'Yeah, we're happy. We survived and we came out of this thing pretty good,' or you're like, 'S---------h, Bristol! I mean, gawd.' Those are the only two ways of looking at this event."
Either way, those watching are virtually certain to come out winners.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including a history of NASCAR entitled The Wildest Ride, and now writes about that sport and others for Bleacher Report. Follow Joe on Twitter @OneMenz.
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