And the Winner Is? A Look at NASCAR's Greatest Finishes
It doesn't matter how many laps a driver leads; the one lap that matters is the last.
Guys like Kyle Busch will always say that it doesn't matter if you dominate the race, if that driver doesn't lead the last one, the effort was for nothing.
Jeff Gordon knows that better than anybody as of last weekend in Las Vegas when he led over 200 laps but finished third.
NASCAR has provided so many great races and spectacular finishes over it's 60-plus year history.
It's something that the fans want to see each time they spend the money on a ticket. It makes it a more memorable weekend when the finish comes down to a classic duel between driving greats.
So many races, so many moments, it is hard to choose what races stand out in terms of great finishes.
However, in the spirit of the Chase for the Cup, I've come up with 12 spectacular finishes in NASCAR. When it comes to battling for the checkered flag, these races stand out among the elite in the sport.
Rattle His Cage a Little Bit: Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte, 1999
It was 1995 when these two drivers first did battle at Bristol Motor Speedway. Dale Earnhardt battled back from a cracked oil cooler to make his way to the front, and did so by any means necessary.
Terry Labonte had the lead, but caught lapped traffic late in the run. Earnhardt pulled up to the bumper of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevy on the final lap and had one chance. He took it.
A bump in the left-rear corner in turn four sent Labonte sideways, but he stayed on the throttle and won the race in the wall.
Fast forward to 1999, same track, same race. Labonte spun out in the lead with ten laps left, flat-spotting his tires. Having to come in for new Goodyear rubber meant Earnhardt would take over the lead.
The green came out with six laps left, and Labonte came charging up. Coming to the white flag, Labonte made the pass out of turn four.
And then it happened. Earnhardt did the same move he did in 1995, but this time in turn two. Labonte goes spinning into the wall as Earnhardt goes through the smoke and on to victory.
In a surprising twist, when he came out of his No. 3 in victory lane, the crowd rained down with a lot of boos alongside the cheers. When asked about the hit on Labonte, Earnhardt delivered one of his memorable lines.
"Nah, I didn't mean to wreck him or nothin', just rattle his cage a little bit."
A classic moment courtesy of the Intimidator.
I Just Wanted a Chance: Kevin Harvick vs. Mark Martin, 2007
Fans and drivers alike will say the greatest driver in NASCAR to have never won a championship is Mark Martin.
He is, in a way, the Dan Marino of the sport. He's never won the title, and he has yet to win the Daytona 500.
But, three years ago, he nearly pulled it off.
Under the lights he was leading a freight train around the track, but many good cars were in the mirror looking for a chance to get up there. Most notably, it was Kevin Harvick making the run on the high side.
Martin went to block on the last lap entering turn three, but Harvick was there. With no help behind him, Martin was in for a battle. Along with that, behind him was a huge wreck that saw Clint Bowyer go for a tumble.
NASCAR did not throw the caution as they wanted a battle to the finish, which would turn out to be the right call. Harvick ran high, getting a side draft from the No. 01 of Martin to get an advantage.
At the stripe, by the length of a hood, Harvick would win his first Daytona 500.
At the same time, Bowyer came across the line upside down and on fire, appropriate as there were sparks flying up front at the same time.
Harvick was jubilant in victory lane, and at the same time Martin was happy with his car and the opportunity he had.
"I just wanted a chance to win the Daytona 500, and I got it," Martin said to FOX reporters after the race.
It was an incredible race, an incredible night, and an incredible experience for everyone at Daytona that February.
One Corner Short: Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace, 1997
One of the classic moves at any race track is the "bump and run." Nowhere is the practice more prominent than at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt made his name famous with that act, but in 1997, the guy Earnhardt deemed the "Wonder Boy" went a little old school on another legend in the sport.
The Food City 500 has been long known to be the favorite track of Rusty Wallace. It was the track he got his first win at, and a place that he always enjoyed coming to. But, on this afternoon, he had to deal with a rainbow colored No. 24 Chevrolet.
As the race began winding down, Gordon found himself in second place, and on the bumper of Wallace.
The television broadcast showed that Wallace's No. 2 Ford was loose coming out of turn two and four, which looked to be the best opportunity for Gordon to make a pass.
But, each time Wallace held his ground and pulled away.
Wallace had just a one-car advantage coming to the white flag, but it was quickly erased when he got stuck behind lapped traffic entering turn one. Gordon ran through the corner hard, and closed in on the bumper out of turn two.
Entering turn three, the camera in the bumper of Wallace's car showed the DuPont Chevrolet right on the sheet metal, but more importantly showed the classic move.
The red bumper of Gordon got right into Wallace, sending him high. Gordon ducked low in the apex of the turn, and out of turn four, it was Gordon gunning the throttle to victory.
Crew chief Ray Evernham was pumping his fists in the air when his driver went across the start/finish line, and Gordon was just as ecstatic in victory lane. Wallace, he was upset, but knew he would do the same thing if roles were reversed.
Five years later, it would be deja vu as Gordon did it again, in the same spot, and went to victory in the night race.
The "Wonder Boy" learned from the best as to how to take a position away. At least that afternoon, his lessons paid off.
And There's a Fight: Donnie Allison vs. Cale Yarborough, 1979
This race could be considered one of the original great finishes in NASCAR because of what it meant in so many aspects for the sport.
CBS first made the decision one year earlier to broadcast the Daytona 500 live, from the green flag to the checkered. It was a decision that was simply unheard of in sports. Sure, broadcasts of NFL were from opening kickoff to final whistle, but NASCAR was still in it's infancy for coverage.
So the idea was far fetched, but the network trusted the executives and went with it.
Little did they know that they would get a race that would go down in history because of one lap, one corner, and one quote. After 199 laps, the race was down to Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, with third and fourth place a long way back.
Down the back straightaway, Yarborough makes his move, and Allison goes to block. The rest is well documented, and memorable among everyone. The two collide twice, and wreck entering turn three.
Meanwhile, here comes Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip coming around realizing the leaders were in the wreck, and began battling for the lead. In the end, Petty would make it to victory lane in the 500 for the sixth time.
Following the win, cameras caught the aftermath of the wreck, and in that moment, CBS announcer Ken Squier provided the words that echo at Daytona every February.
"And there's a fight, there's a fight between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. They're angry, they know they have lost."
That race drew some of the highest ratings for a race, averaging a 10.4 rating with the final hour getting an incredible rating of 13.1.
It was the race that started the broadcasting era in NASCAR, and it was the finish that has become the greatest moment in NASCAR history.
Ready for the Encore: Jamie McMurray vs. Kyle Busch, 2007
When Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin had their memorable finish in the Daytona 500 in 2007, advertisers came up with the perfect idea to get fans excited for their July race weekend.
When commercials came out to start getting people prepared, the slogan before giving out ticket information was "Ready For The Encore?"
It's unclear whether the writers had psychic powers, but the advertisers could not have written a better tag line for this race. It was TNT's first attempt at doing "Wide Open Coverage," where commercial breaks were limited to 90 seconds or less, and the race statistics were constantly being looped.
What the station and the fans got was practically a repeat of what happened in February, just different drivers and a lot closer.
As the 400-mile race wound down, it was Kyle Busch out front, and he was not getting much help from his then-teammates from Hendrick Motorsports. Coming off the announcement that he was leaving the organization in favor of Dale Earnhardt Jr, his teammates were not giving much help.
Call it motivation, but Busch would be the driver that Hendrick was relying on for a victory. Meanwhile, Roush was also in the running for another victory at Daytona as he had a couple drivers out front battling for victory.
The white flag came out, and it was Busch and Jamie McMurray going side-by-side. They went at it with the field falling back, leaving it to be a battle between these two drivers.
Coming to the line, it was close, and even the broadcasters couldn't tell, but many were pointing at McMurray as the winner. When the video was slowed down, in a true repeat performance, it was the outside line getting the victory, meaning McMurray would put Roush back in victory lane at Daytona.
The gap between McMurray and Busch was 0.005 seconds, the second closest finish in the modern era.
You could not predict that the race would match the promotion, but in this case, the advertising team at Daytona knew what they were talking about.
What'd Ya Expect Me To Do-Jeff Gordon vs. Jeff Burton, 1997
When R.J. Reynolds decided to put a bonus on the line for a driver to win three of the four elite races in NASCAR, it was a huge deal. The fact that the bonus would be $1 million sweetened the pot just that much more.
In 1985, the first year it was introduced, Bill Elliott won the bonus as he won the Daytona 500, the Die-Hard 500 at Talladega and then the Southern 500 at Darlington. After that, three other drivers had a chance to win it, with all three failing.
In 1997, Jeff Gordon entered Darlington with the same chance. He won Daytona and the Coca-Cola 600. The DuPont team decided to make the race Gordon's "Million Dollar Date."
Special decals were printed and placed on the rear fenders, on the hood, and even little dollar signs were put in the location of the jack lifts for the pit crew.
Early in the race, Gordon didn't appear to be a contender, but as the clouds came in, the car got faster and he found his way to the front. His lone hiccup came when he hit the wall coming out of turn two, flattening the right side of his Chevrolet.
As the laps wound down, his closest challenge came from Jeff Burton, and he was coming. Three laps left, Burton was within two car lengths. As both drivers entered turn three, Burton was there, and he let Gordon know it. He got right on his bumper, and went for the pass on the front straightaway, tire smoke coming from each car and the white flag in the air.
But Gordon held his ground and got the best line entering the first turn, and at that point, the race was won. Gordon came off the last corner with a two car-length lead and took the win, and a huge bonus.
In victory lane, he was jubilant at his win, and he gave all the credit to Burton for his run at the end, and he knew it would be tough.
But, as Gordon said, "It was a million dollars man, what'd ya expect me to do?"
With a bonus on the line that can only be won by one driver and one car, people were expecting nothing less than a dogfight. They got it that Labor Day weekend.
Lessons from the Father: Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Daytona, 2001
In the wake of the death of Dale Earnhardt, people began to wonder how NASCAR would do with the loss of their icon. No one knew that better, or more personally than his son, Dale Jr.
When NASCAR returned to Daytona, it was a strange and eerie feeling. Everyone knew that turn four now holds a black cloud on the sport, and became a part of Junior's life that he cannot take back.
Looking to rectify the loss of his father, he came to Daytona with a lot on his mind. But, in one night, he became the sport's favorite son.
His No. 8 Budweiser/MLB All-Star game Chevy was out front for a majority of the night, but late in the race, he found himself just outside the top-five. But, with the last name of Earnhardt, everyone in the stands and in the pit knew he wasn't done. It was as if suddenly his father's spirit took over, and the No. 8 came charging.
The draft of the lead cars pulled him to the front, and teammate Michael Waltrip was there with an assist. In six laps, Junior made his way to the lead, and then had to protect his spot.
Coming to the checkered flag, Alan Bestwick had the call.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr, using lessons learned from his father, going from sixth to first to score the victory in the Pepsi 400."
Not one person at that speedway wanted to leave. The fans wanted to see their driver celebrate, and that wish was granted. The Budweiser team flocked to the infield as Junior exited the car.
Waltrip pulled alongside, as it was he who won the Daytona 500 on that fateful February day. Even the Childress No. 29 team came out to celebrate.
In victory lane, Mike Helton gave Junior a hug, whispering "You deserve this" in his ear.
On that July night, it didn't matter who the fans cheered for. In the end, everyone wanted to see Earnhardt Jr. win that race.
The Perfect Race: Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough, 1984
There are very few times whenever someone can consider a race "perfect." It's such a rare occasion, that it'd hardly ever discussed.
However, in 1984, the King himself got to experience the perfect race, and perfect finish.
It was July 4, America's birthday, and at Daytona International Speedway. The race was the Firecracker 400.
This race would be special just with that, but to add to the prestige, a special guest would be in attendance and give the command to start engines. President Ronald Reagan was flying down to the speedway, and on board Air Force One, he told the team to start their engines.
As the race wore on, it was evident that Petty had a very strong car. He was looking for an incredible 200th career victory. Soon, it would come down to a battle with old rival Cale Yarborough for the win.
With Reagan in the broadcast booth, Yarborough closed in on the No. 43 STP Buick, getting ready for a last-lap slingshot. But, with three laps left, a wreck behind the two drivers meant the race would end right there.
Suddenly, Yarborough had to adapt on the fly, and made the pass on the back straightaway. Unfortunately for him, he was not in the position he wanted to be, and Petty took advantage.
In turn three the No. 43 ducked low, and wend door-to-door heading to the stripe, and as they reached the line, it was the red and blue STP Buick getting there first.
It was win No. 200, on Independence Day, with the President of the United States in attendance. Simply put, it was the "Perfect" race.
Won from Above: Kevin Harvick vs. Jeff Gordon, 2001
When Dale Earnhardt passed away, every person in the sport felt the loss. There was something that was missing from the track, something missing in the garage, and something missing in the stands.
One week after his death, the GM Goodwrench Servick Plus car returned to the track, but an entirely new appearance. The car was white, a new number was on the side, and a new driver inside the car.
Kevin Harvick had to take over possibly the most recognized car in the modern era of NASCAR, but it didn't take long for every fan to accept this new driver and his incredible undertaking.
In Harvick's third race in the car, he came to Atlanta, and showed he could compete with the top drivers in Cup. He qualified fifth at a very fast track, and stayed up front all day. With ten laps left, it came down to a five-car battle. He, Jeff Gordon, Jerry Nadeau, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were all going for the win.
Soon, with four laps left, Harvick got out front and pulled away. Nadeau fell back while Earnhardt Jr. cut a tire. Gordon got past Jarrett and set his sites on Harvick.
With the FOX crew discussing the finish from the year earlier between Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte coming to a photo finish, these two looked to make a repeat.
On the last lap, Harvick held the high line, but Gordon dived low and made the car stick on the bottom. Out of turn four, Gordon wiggled just a bit, but held the throttle down and went right to the line alongside Harvick. When the checkered flag flew, it was Harvick getting there first.
Both teams on pit road weren't sure who got there first, but when the scoring confirmed it, the No. 29 crew let all the emotions out. Chocolate Myers, Earnhardt's long-time fuel man, had tears rolling as he saw Harvick burn the tires off his car.
Richard Childress himself got emotional in his interview, giving a lot of credit to his fallen driver and friend.
"I kept praying for Dale to help us. He did," Childress said as he tried to keep from crying.
Fans were so touched by the win, but a few days later, NASCAR Scene made it more fitting. Call it creepy, call it divine, but it is forever remembered.
It was the fourth race of the year. Harvick's car was No. 29. He started fifth and went on to win the race.
The article put the numbers together in this way: 4/29/51-Dale Earnhardt's birthday.
Harvick won the race, but for many fans, they firmly believe it was won from above.
I Can Get Rough Too: Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch, 2008
In NASCAR, the fans have a way of decided who they want to cheer and who they want to jeer. In 2008, it became pretty clear that the driver the fans were not fond of was Kyle Busch.
He earned the nickname Rowdy from his driving style, and seemed to get on the bad side of the fans. Although the fans had seen that type of driving style before, it was the actions of Busch after he had a bad day that got under the skin of the people.
If he got in a wreck, or even just finished second, he'd blow off the media and leave.
At Bristol in 2008, that attitude got on the bad side of one Carl Edwards.
Busch and Edwards were the top two cars on that night, with over 30 laps left, Edwards found himself behind Busch. The gap closed, and closed quickly. Soon, Carl decided to give Busch a little of his own medicine and gave him a nudge out of the way.
Edwards went on to win the race, but the actions after the race put this finish up with some of the greatest. On the cool down lap, Edwards was greeting the fans, but entering the third turn, Busch decided to push him up into the wall.
The No. 18 put tire marks on the side of Edwards, but then as Busch turned to pit road, things changed. Almost as if the phrase "do unto others" came to mind, Edwards hit the right-rear corner of the M&M's Toyota and sent him for a spin.
Sure, Edwards got a penalty as did Busch, but it made for great television. And it was Bristol, who'd expect anything less?
Fifteen Spots in Three Laps: Dale Earnhardt vs. The Field, 2000
Talladega Superspeedway has long been deemed the "House that Earnhardt Built." This track just seemed to favor the Intimidator better than any other driver on the circuit. Ten victories at this track made him the dominant driver on the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
But, it was his final victory that will go down as quite possibly his greatest ever at the track.
A new rule package for restrictor plate tracks made the Winston 500 a rather competitive event. Over 50 lead changes, 20 different leaders; it was a race no one could predict the winner.
That is unless the man picked to win was named Earnhardt. With just three laps left, the No. 3 Chevy was marred in 16th position. But the master of the draft suddenly went to work. Using every car in front, on the side, and behind, suddenly Earnhardt began coming to the front.
Dr. Jerry Punch and Benny Parsons were almost in awe of what the Intimidator was doing.
"And here comes Earnhardt," Punch said.
Soon after, Parsons followed up with, "How did he get through all these cars?"
The right side of the GM Goodwrench car was scraped up tire marks. As the field rounded turns three and four coming to the white flag, Earnhardt was going to the lead. The fans were screaming their lungs out as Earnhardt took the white flag.
He weaved back and forth down the back straightaway, breaking the draft of the cars behind him. No one was challenging Earnhardt as he went on to his 76th, and soon to be final, career victory.
If he could see air, that day proved it. Fifteen spots in three laps. For Earnhardt, that is a walk in the park.
Have You Ever-No I've Never: Ricky Craven vs. Kurt Busch, 2003
Darlington Raceway has provided some of the most memorable moments in NASCAR. There was Bill Elliott's Winston Million victory, Jeff Gordon's record four-straight Southern 500 victories, and the duel between Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip in 1979.
But, without question, the most memorable finish to ever come from the "Lady in Black" was in 2003.
The dominant car of that afternoon was Kurt Busch, who was battling power steering problems all race. Somehow, he managed to find himself out front as the laps counted down.
But, an unexpected foe came from behind and was coming in a hurry. Ricky Craven was working his way to the lead in his Tide Pontiac, and with two laps left, made the move on the front straightaway. Nether car lifted into the first turn, and even though Craven got the lead, he couldn't hold it. Busch went flying by out of turn two.
But, Craven's car was better at the other end of the track, and he knew he had another chance.
As both took the white flag, Craven began closing as they went through turns one and two, getting to within two car-lengths. Entering the third turn, Busch went to the wall, but got slightly loose. Craven dove low and the race was on.
Both cars beat, banged, rammed and pushed down the wire, the FOX crew got emotional, with Larry McReynolds being the most vocal, shouting, "They touch! They touch!"
At the finish line, Craven just barely, BARELY, edged out Busch for the win. The fans were jumping like crazy, and in turn, Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip provided the quote that everyone associates with this race.
Joy: "Have you ever?"
Waltrip: "No, I've never!"
The margin of victory: 0.002 seconds, the closest finish since electronic timing was introduced.
What made the race even more special and great was in victory lane, neither driver was angry at the other. They just congratulated each other on the competitive nature of how it happened, as each was smiling and just as jubilant.
Craven's win was the last for Pontiac in NASCAR as they left the following season. The way I see it, if they decided to leave, they certainly went out on a very high note.