Expert industry panel including journalists, historians and promoters identify Top 15 BMS Spring Race Moments
BRISTOL, Tenn. (March 10, 2023) – In celebration of NASCAR’s 75th Anniversary, Bristol Motor Speedway asked more than 20 industry insiders to identify their most memorable moments from the 62 NASCAR Cup Series races that have been held at The World’s Fastest Half-Mile during the Spring.
Bristol Motor Speedway is a unique half-mile facility with high banked turns that has often been described as “a short track that races like a superspeedway.” The facility has also shown versatility over the years, first hosting races as an asphalt oval, then transitioning to an all-concrete bullring and most recently it has shown it can easily be converted to a premier all-dirt surface. Races have been held with sun beating down during the day, with humidity surrounding the track and also on cool nights with the stadium lit up as brightly as the downtown of a major city.
The track’s famed “Night Race” that has traditionally been held in August and September, and is now a part of the NASCAR Playoffs, has received the lion’s share of fanfare and publicity over the years due to some thrilling finishes, especially two that involved “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt and the “Ice Man” Terry Labonte in the late 1990s.
However, true Bristol fans know that the traditional BMS Spring Race, which has been called the Southeastern 500, Valleydale 500, Valleydale Meats 500 and since 1992 the Food City 500, has amassed some of its own truly amazing moments over the years as well. In fact, this project was originally targeted to identify the Top 10 Spring Race moments. Once the distinguished expert panel delivered their selections it was easy to see that it was necessary to evolve the list into a Top 15 moments. Quite simply, there were just too many compelling races to choose from.
The industry panel awarded first place votes to 10 of the 15 moments that were selected. Every moment that received a first-place vote made the list. There were several moments that were just a few votes short of making the list, including the 1961 inaugural race won by Jack Smith and relief driver Johnny Allen; The 2018 race that has been labeled the “Kyle & Kyle Show” where Kyle Busch eventually won after a memorable duel with Kyle Larson; Rusty Wallace’s first win with Penske South in 1991; The King Richard Petty’s win in ’75; and the 2011 race that was renamed the Jeff Byrd 500 in honor of the dynamic late track president.
A few moments that some might have expected to make the list were left on the cutting room floor, including the 2020 Food City Supermarket Heroes 500, which still ranks as the most thrilling Bristol finish to take place in front of empty grandstands as Brad Keselowski took advantage of a final lap tangle between Chase Elliott and Joey Logano during the first race back in the pandemic. The dramatic 2019 Busch brothers duel, where Kurt “playfully” said he would’ve wrecked Kyle if he could’ve got close enough, also only received a couple of votes. Neither of seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson’s breakthrough Bristol wins – 2010 or 2017 – made the list either.
The moments that did make the list are some that continue to create the legacy of iconic Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that routinely delivers excitement, chaos, mayhem and that has also been proudly christened, “The Holy Grail of Short Tracks.”
As veteran racing journalist and panel member Lee Spencer noted, “The Last Great Colosseum has always set the stage for some of the most dramatic battles in motorsports, always separating the men from the boys.”
Without further ado, here is the list of the Top 15 moments of the Bristol NASCAR Cup Series Spring Race:
No. 15, Pearson beats Petty
With a total of 7 votes from the panel, the 1971 Southeastern 500 featured a classic battle between rivals David Pearson and Richard Petty. Both drivers finished the race exactly where they started, with Pearson first and Petty second. This was Pearson’s fifth and final victory at Bristol.
No. 14, Awesome Bill gets his short track victory
Bill Elliott started the 1988 Valleydale Meats 500 in 13th and didn’t take the lead until lap 379, but the Georgia native stayed in the hunt for the win from that moment on. He had a hard time with rival Geoff Bodine during the final laps. With 10 to go, the crafty Bodine spun Elliott and retook the lead. However, Elliott then pitted for fresh tires and Bodine stayed out front. Bodine held his shaky lead for one lap, but with three to go Elliott used his fresh tires to whip around the New York native and take the elusive Bristol victory.
The moment received eight votes from the panel and noted author and race historian David McGee says Elliott’s dedicated fanbase went from the outhouse to the penthouse in a matter of minutes. “The place erupted when Bodine spun Elliott late in the going, but with just three cars on the lead lap, those same angry Elliott fans were screaming when Bill used fresh tires to get around Bodine and went to Victory Lane,” McGee recalled.
No. 13, the Busch and Spencer feud
At the 2002 Food City 500 Kurt Busch became the fifth driver to earn his first-career Cup Series victory and also was able to pick up his first full-time rivalry in the process. He dueled with Jimmy Spencer for the victory and rubbed fenders with him on lap 445 to take the lead for good and go on to win the race. Spencer was never able to get close enough to get revenge. After their Bristol tussle, the two continued to spar during several races in 2002 and into 2003. Their multi-year war remains one of the most celebrated feuds in NASCAR history. This moment received 9 votes from the panel.
No. 12, Kyle wins with the Car of Tomorrow
The 2007 Food City 500 featured the debut of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow and Kyle Busch claimed one of his first Bristol victories at the event in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy Impala. The moment received one first place vote and seven total votes from the panel. “That was classic Kyle Busch making the most of a car even though he wasn’t having the most fun,” said Bob Pockrass of FOX Sports. “And it was a pivotal moment in NASCAR history with a car designed with specific safety initiatives.”
No. 11, Kulwicki wins first Food City 500
Alan Kulwicki was the first driver to celebrate in victory lane as a Food City 500 winner in 1992. Food City founder Jack Smith congratulated Kulwicki on his victory that day as the grocery chain embarked on its sponsorship of a NASCAR event, expanding from its beginnings in the sport, which included sponsoring Food City Family Race Night starting in August 1987. This moment earned its spot with one first place vote and seven total votes.
No. 10, NASCAR returns to its roots with historic Food City Dirt Race
For the first time in more than 50 years the NASCAR Cup Series returned to its roots in 2021 with the running of the Food City Dirt Race on a dirt-transformed half-mile oval at BMS. Joey Logano, who started 10th, was one of the race’s five leaders and he took over with 61 laps to go and held on to take the historic victory. Ricky Stenhouse earned another BMS second place finish and was followed by Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez. Suarez had one of his best runs in his Cup career, leading 58 laps midway through the race in his No. 99 Chevy. Martin Truex Jr., who won the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt earlier in the rain-delayed doubleheader day, also led nine laps before falling back to finish 19th. Pole-sitter Kyle Larson, who had big expectations for a victory given his success in the dirt racing world, got caught up in a couple of multi-car incidents and finished a disappointing 29th.
This moment received six top-five votes among its 11 total votes. “Logano proved that you didn’t have to be a dirt racing expert to have success in a Cup car on the dirt at Bristol,” said Jeff Birchfield, longtime motorsports reporter for the Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times-News. “You could tell that Logano was thrilled with winning that race; that he fully understood the historical significance of what he had accomplished that day.”
No. 9, Cale sets a record by leading all 500 laps
After years of disappointment at Bristol, Cale Yarborough finally got it done and in record-setting fashion as he led all 500 laps of the 1973 Southeastern 500. It took two weeks to finish the race due to a weather delay, but even that minor inconvenience couldn’t deter Yarborough. Calling his No. 11 machine the smoothest ride he ever had, Yarborough started on the pole and never trailed in the race. He joins Jeff Burton as the only two drivers in NASCAR history to lead every lap of a Cup race in the modern era. The panel issued four second place votes to this moment out of its 11 overall votes.
No. 8, Earnhardt wins without power steering
Growing his legend by leaps and bounds, Dale Earnhardt literally manhandled his Chevy Monte Carlo to take a grueling victory in the 1985 Valleydale 500. His power steering failed early in the race and the Intimidator had to drive the final 400 laps without it. He led throughout the race and was trailing Ricky Rudd late in the race. Earnhardt took advantage of a late race caution and managed to pass Rudd with 18 laps to go. He never looked back, and defeated an all-star lineup of rivals including second-place Rudd, Terry Labonte, Buddy Baker and Rusty Wallace, who rounded out the top five.
The moment received nine total votes and one first place vote from the panel. “I was monitoring the radio broadcast on my scanner when they said Dale’s car lost its power steering and he had to drive most of the day without it – but still clung to the lead and held on to win,” McGee said. “He said later he didn’t ever want to have to do it again.” Said Andy Jeffers of Sports & Entertainment media: “Dale Earnhardt winning without power steering at any Bristol race is heroic in racing lore.”
No. 7, Gordon gives Kenseth post-race shove on pit road
Tempers flared at the finish of the 2006 Food City 500 when the usually calm and cool Jeff Gordon released an angry outburst and shoved Matt Kenseth on pit road, knocking the Wisconsin driver back several feet before NASCAR officials jumped in the middle of the fray. The physical altercation followed an on-track incident on the race’s final lap where Kenseth retaliated from an earlier bump by Gordon and used the same move to get past Gordon on the closing lap. Kenseth’s bump dropped Gordon to a 21st place finish, when he was likely to finish third or higher. Gordon was fined $10,000 by NASCAR for his post-race conduct, the first time in his career he received such a penalty. By the way, Kurt Busch took the checkered flag. This moment earned one first-place vote out of the 13 total votes from the panel.
No. 6, Wallace honors Kulwicki with Polish Victory Lap
Emotions were raw at Bristol during the 1993 Food City 500 weekend as the racing community received word that defending Cup champ Alan Kulwicki and three others had perished in a plane crash earlier that week as they headed to Bristol. It seemed almost destined that Kulwicki’s friend Rusty Wallace would claim the victory on Sunday. In a stirring tribute, Wallace turned his No. 2 Penske machine around and did his victory lap in a counter-race direction – something Kulwicki had done to celebrate his wins. The “Polish Victory Lap” has become a standard celebration for many drivers in the years since.
This moment received 13 votes from the panel and one first place vote. “Sometimes, everything else just overshadows the competition on the race track,” said Kenny Bruce, who covered the sport for more than 40 years, most notably with NASCAR Cup Scene. “The image of the No. 7 hauler circling a wet track Friday morning one final time before pulling out to leave the speedway is one anyone there won’t forget. Two days later, Rusty Wallace celebrated his race victory by driving a cool-down lap counter-clockwise around the track in honor of Kulwicki and his “Polish victory lap” he had debuted the previous year after scoring his first Cup Series win.” Said FOX Sport’s Pockrass: “Rusty Wallace’s salute to Alan Kulwicki doing the traditional Kulwicki victory lap a few days after Kulwicki died is one of the emotional moments in the sport that won’t be forgotten.”
No. 5, Davey Allison wins in a photo finish
In one of the closest finishes in Bristol history, Davey Allison clipped Mark Martin by mere inches to take the victory in the 1990 Valleydale Meats 500. Adding to the lore of this win was the fact that Allison’s team was pitted on Bristol’s backstretch as a result of his 19th place qualifying position. As a bunch of cars were in contention in the final laps, Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin tangled in turn two on the final lap which gave way to Allison and Martin to go side by side to the finish line in the dramatic race to the checkers. The result was so close NASCAR had to confirm the top two positions by using the start/finish line camera. As a jubilant Allison headed to Victory Lane, an angry Marlin headed to Rudd’s hauler to discuss their final lap encounter.
This moment received two first place votes out of its 11 panel votes. “Prior to that day nobody had won Bristol pitting on the backstretch but Davey was packing tons of Robert Yates horsepower,” McGee recalled. “He and Mark dueled it out at the end and it was impossible from my spot to tell which one won. It was an amazing finish and a great race.”
No. 4, DW makes it 7-straight Bristol wins
Bobby Allison appeared to have the car to beat in 1984 but his Buick developed rear end problems and fell off the pace with 44 laps to go. BMS dominator Darrell Waltrip took advantage of his rival’s misfortune and held off all challengers to claim his fourth-straight Valleydale 500 win and seventh-straight Bristol Cup Series victory, a legendary feat which remains a track-record.
This moment earned three first place votes and 10 votes overall. “Waltrip was invincible, it seemed, on the high-banked half-mile, visiting victory lane time after time after time, and the 1984 race was no different,” veteran scribe Bruce said. “Fans were saying ‘Anybody but Waltrip!’ However, it was more like ‘Nobody but Waltrip.’” Said Jeffers: “Darrell Waltrip winning his 7th straight at one of the most difficult tracks is uncommon ground and likely will never be accomplished again.”
No. 3, Leaders Reddick and Briscoe come up empty in last lap dirt dance
BMS brought the dirt back for a second time in 2022 and ran the race at night. In a race that was recently voted one of the wildest finishes in BMS history, surprise winner Kyle Busch claimed the victory as race leader Tyler Reddick and hard-charging Chase Briscoe tangled coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap of the race. The two made contact and spun off in different directions, which opened the door for Busch to streak by and take the checkered flag. Reddick rallied to post a second-place finish in his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. Briscoe went over to apologize to Reddick after the race and the two to most fans’ astonishment were able to share a laugh about it and ultimately shake hands. On the sponsor front, Food City celebrated its 30th year as sponsor of the BMS Spring Cup event.
This race received three first place votes and 11 votes overall from the panel. “Chase Briscoe could probably try that last corner pass on Tyler Reddick 100 times and I think the result would be the same every time – spinning himself and taking out the leader, allowing Kyle Busch to slip by and almost quietly pick up his historic ninth Bristol victory,” McGee said. “I suspect fans were surprised when Reddick seemed to apologize for the crash and for not being further ahead of Briscoe’s Ford.”
No. 2, Rookie Earnhardt earns first Cup victory at Bristol
Rookie driver Dale Earnhardt, 28 at the time, scored his first Cup Series victory at the 1979 Southeastern 500 in grand fashion by holding off superstars Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for the victory. Earnhardt led 161 laps of the race and took the lead for good with 27 laps to go. He finished three seconds ahead of Allison and proved he belonged on the biggest stage with the world’s best stock car racers. “This was a win in the big leagues, the Grand Nationals,” Earnhardt famously said in Victory Lane. “It was against top caliber drivers. It wasn’t some dirt track back home.” He remains the only rookie to ever win a Cup Series race at Bristol.
Fittingly, the moment earned 3 first place votes among the 16 total votes from the panel. “The 1979 race Dale Earnhardt won was my No. 1 pick because it provided a glimpse into Earnhardt’s talent in his rookie season,” said veteran reporter Deb Williams, who has covered the sport for UPI, NASCAR Cup Scene and other publications in a career spanning more than six decades. “Those covering the sport at that time realized with that victory that the second-generation driver was on the threshold of a very successful career.”
“I was fortunate/blessed to cover Dale Earnhardt’s first win and I never miss a chance to tell folks that,” said Mike Smith, who has worked in the sport more than six decades as a journalist and publicist. “But beyond personal reasons, this was the race that birthed a legend; it’s here where the seven championships began. It deserves to be among the top five of all-time Cup races.”
Said Bruce: “The seven-time series champion won nine times at Bristol, but the ’79 victory, with team owner Rod Osterlund and colorful crew chief Jake Elder was where it all began. How many Cup rookies have won at Bristol? Just one. Earnhardt.”
No. 1, Gordon uses the bump-n-run on Wallace
Proving that the famed Bristol bump and run isn’t limited to only the Night Race, Jeff Gordon perfectly utilized the oft-used Bristol maneuver on Rusty Wallace in the 1997 Food City 500 to take the victory. Wallace had led the race for most of the day, but Gordon was charging, picking his way through traffic. Gordon tailed Wallace for 85 laps but ultimately caught Wallace on the final lap and used his bumper to get around the Penske driver in turn three. Despite wobbling up the track after the contact, Wallace managed to regain control quickly and bring his No. 2 Ford in for a second-place finish.
The panel awarded this moment five first place votes and 17 total votes. “I can still remember Jeff being so excited about successfully executing the bump-and-run on Rusty after the race – he was almost giddy – but Rusty was none too impressed,” McGee said. “Wallace still calls this one of the Bristol wins that got away.”
“Gordon vs. Rusty showcased two superstars at the top of their games and featured the infamous bump and run,” said veteran journalist Mike Hembree who has covered NASCAR for USA Today, Autoweek and NASCAR Scene, among other news outlets.
“What an amazing finish to a very entertaining race,” said WJHL TV-11 Daytime Tri-Cities host Chris McIntosh. “It proved that Gordon wasn’t just a finesse driver.”
Fans who attend this year’s Food City Dirt Race can expect more magical moments to unfold as NASCAR’s best drivers compete in close quarters in pursuit of a coveted victory at The Last Great Colosseum – dirt trackin’ style – and only the strongest will survive the mayhem that’s unleashed on the storied short track.
The Bristol race weekend is highlighted by the NASCAR Cup Series returning to its roots with the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday evening, April 9 (7 p.m., FOX and PRN Radio). The WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt will see the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series take to the clay-covered track on Saturday (8 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio) and will be preceded by Bush’s Beans Qualifying, which offers four heat races to set the starting lineups in each series. On Friday, teams in both the Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series will be able to fine-tune their machines during Bush’s Beans Practice Day.
In addition to cheering on their favorite drivers during the weekend and enjoying the Easter Celebration, Bristol Motor Speedway fans will definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun. There will be great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world’s largest center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Super Fan Suites, tailgating, a visit to the BMS Kids Zone, BMS Fan Zone and Fan Midway, on-site camping, concerts and other entertainment at the Food City Fan Zone Stage like the Race Day Revival with Kenny Wallace and John Roberts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
To purchase tickets for the Food City Dirt Race, WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt and Bush’s Beans Qualifying, please visit the BMS website, or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.
About Bristol Motor Speedway
Forged amid the scenic mountains of Northeast Tennessee near the Virginia state line, Bristol Motor Speedway is The Last Great Colosseum, a versatile multi-use venue that hosts major auto races, football games, concerts and many other captivating events. The facility features a 0.533-mile concrete oval race track with 28-degree corner banking and 650-feet straightaways that offers racing in several NASCAR touring series, highlighted by two major Cup Series weekends each year. In 2020, the track also served as host of the prestigious NASCAR All-Star Race, and in 2021 began converting to a temporary dirt track each spring to take the Cup Series back to its racing roots. While at the track, fans are offered a unique viewing experience courtesy of Colossus TV, the world’s largest outdoor center-hung four-sided video screen with a 540,000-watt audio system. The adjacent quarter-mile dragstrip, Bristol Dragway, offers more than 50 events annually, including the marquee NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. The Thunder Valley Amphitheatre presented by Ballad Health transforms Bristol Dragway into a premier outdoor concert venue for the world’s greatest music performers. Three football games have kicked-off inside the oval, most notably the 2016 Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol, where border rivals the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech met before an NCAA-record crowd of 156,990. In existence since 1961, Bristol Motor Speedway was purchased in 1996 by Speedway Motorsports, a leading marketer and promoter of motorsports entertainment in the United States.