Drivers dig in for Bristol stomp

Aug 23, 2005 5:30 AM

Eastern Tennessee’s tri-cities are about as picturesque Americana as any portion of our great country.

The bible is the law, everyone knows each other and when the sun sets the only noise you can hear are the critters chirping in the vast expanse of the Smokey Mountains. The sky is illuminated by what seems like the biggest collections of stars on the planet.

Once a year, the folks in Bristol stay up a bit later and drink a little more. The illuminated stars have company with a huge embankment of flood lights, as they take part in what has become the greatest annual event in Tennessee — the Saturday night special on the half mile track of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Over 160,000 fans possess the most coveted ticket in sports, a right that allows them entry into NASCAR’s most popular action packed race. The Tennessee-Florida game in Knoxville every two years is always a big deal, but capacity at Neyland Stadium is "only" 102,000. In Nashville, The Titans have really been welcomed with open arms by the entire state of Tennessee in a relatively short time since moving from Houston. However, capacity at Adelphia Coliseum is only 67,000.

Besides the 160,000 that are lucky enough to get a ticket into the Bristol race, there is an additional 20,000 hanging around outside the track just to be around the vibe. In the other sports, the fans are never guaranteed of going home happy with a win, but at a Bristol night race they will always see great racing. The cars go side by side for 500 laps. After a Bristol race, the cars and drivers both take a beating.

The side by side racing causes some drivers to take exception and get a little upset. In fact, they get a lot upset. This season there are bound to be many more drivers that will be angry following the race with the way the points race is shaping up. There are only three races remaining until judgment day and the pressure is mounting for a few of these drivers.

If a bump is determined to be intentional, which is known to occur, the blame for a poor finish finds its way to a certain driver. That reaction is likely to happen right after the race in front of all the cameras and 160,000 cheering fans. It sometimes looks like a WWE Battle Royal when the crews get involved too. Nothing really occurs, just a bunch of shoving and swearing, but it sure is entertaining.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol earlier this year, seems to be a lightning rod for trouble. Harvick has had some pretty good run-ins on the half-miler. My favorite is the time he leaped over a few cars after a Busch Series race so he could put a choke hold on Greg Biffle’s little neck. That was classic, but it led to Harvick going on probation that a few weeks later turned into a suspension when he blew his stack again.

Harvick finally reached his potential at Bristol by winning and may go on a tear there for the next few years. He had come so close ever since taking over the GM Goodwrench Chevy back in 2001, but bad luck shortened his day. He always ran well in the Busch Series and his introduction into racing was on the short tracks. Harvick was bound to succeed. Now with the toughest win being behind him, he may be ready to roll.

We’ve seen over the years a few drivers decide that they were going to own Bristol for a while. Kurt Busch went on a rampage, winning four of five races there. Before Busch it was Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarborough. Between the five, they have won 49 percent (44-of-89) of the Cup races at Bristol.

Harvick (6-1) has some catching up to do to get into that company, but he does have the attitude it takes to win. While Busch is bit more mild mannered and has been tamed somewhat, the other four drivers in that group all had that "Don’t tread on me" tenacity. They aren’t afraid to ruffle some feathers, or rattle the cage of another driver if it means getting them to victory lane.

Over the years some of the best races in Bristol history have come at the expense of some great drivers, who happened to be nice guys. Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte each had his moment at the end of a Bristol race only to be bullied on the last lap. No one is going to bully Harvick and he’s got no problem bumping someone if it means checkers for him.

We mentioned Busch (6-1) and Wallace (12-1) already as candidates to win because of their strong past at Bristol. Here’s a look at a few other drivers that have all the credentials to be winners at Thunder Valley. It’s no coincidence that all have that John Wayne swagger in their steps. Translation: They aren’t afraid of anyone.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (12-1) had one of his better runs (fourth) in the first Bristol race. He’s got that bully mentality like his father had. That attitude is respected much more when your car is running well, which Junior’s is not. However, short track racing is different and he should do well or least better than we’ve grown accustomed to this year. He won this race last year and has eight more to go to catch his father.

Tony Stewart (7-1) is a past winner at Bristol, but went through major bumps and bruises there since that 2001 win. He finished third in the spring race when the Gibbs team was just ordinary. Right now there is no hotter team in NASCAR. In fact, they may be the hottest team ever in NASCAR, having won five of the last eight events.

Jeff Gordon (10-1) may be in a great spot for this race because the light is dimming on his season. The pressure is off and he knows how to get around the bullring pretty good in any type of car. Gordon has won at Bristol during all stages of his career and he’s had quality finishes throughout. In the spring he finished in 15th position, two laps back.

Greg Biffle (12-1) has had solid finishes over his career at Bristol in all series. He wants so badly to have that tough guy label placed on him. Bristol is a place that he could really help shape his desired image — leaving us all with one that beats our lasting Bristol Polaroid of him being choked by Harvick.