Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race unleashes drivers' inner beast in epic battles inside The Last Great Colosseum
No driver is immune to the rough and tumble world that exists within the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.
Once the lights are turned on and the green flag waves at the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, every driver transforms into a ruthless Gladiator, whose primary mission is survival.
And, of course, to win at any cost.
Over the years tempers have flared, bumpers have been smashed, cars crashed, helmets, water bottles and various pieces of driver's equipment has been thrown and plenty of fights have erupted.
When all of that happens and the smoke finally clears, fans of The Last Great Colosseum know that it has been a really good night of racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has experienced his share of skirmishes in America's Night Race over the years. The namesake of the legendary Intimidator, nine-time BMS winner Dale Earnhardt Sr., will try to bring his race car home in one piece and win the event one more time on Aug. 19 as he makes his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Thunder Valley's notorious bullring.
In Bristol Night Race lore, Dale Jr.'s most discussed tussle took place in 2002 with Virginia gentleman Ward Burton. On lap 403, Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy made contact with Burton's machine, sending it hard into the wall. Burton wasn't pleased with the outcome and stood on the track as Earnhardt Jr. came back around during the caution laps.
Burton showed his displeasure by tossing his heat shields at Earnhardt's red No. 8.
"I've got some really good words for him, but I can't say it on TV," Burton said at the time to the TNT reporter. "I've really got to control myself right at the moment."
When the television reporter asked Burton about throwing his heat shields, Burton quipped, "I wish I had something I could've shot through the (expletive) window."
Earnhardt Jr. was apologetic for the mishap after the race and said it was just one of those Bristol racing deals.
"I am disappointed that it happened," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't make it a secret when I wreck someone, and I don't do it a lot, but I hope Ward knows it was not intentional at all. I had a great run on him on the back stretch and he was protecting his spot and made kind of an abrupt move into turn three. I couldn't get out from under him in time. I tried to lock 'em up, but it wasn't enough and I hit him.
"I was disappointed that he didn't get whatever it was he threw in the car with me," Earnhardt Jr. continued. "I at least wanted to see what he was throwing at me."
Dale Jr.'s father was the primary instigator in two of the most talked-about skirmishes in BMS history. Both took place during the Night Race and involved mild-mannered Terry Labonte.
The first one unfolded in 1995, when Earnahrdt Sr. made contact with Labonte just off turn four on the race's final lap, sending the Hendrick Motorsports driver's Chevy sliding across the finish line as the checkered flag waved. Labonte had a big smile on his face as he held his trophy beside his badly crumpled machine as it smoked and leaked fluids in Victory Lane.
"That was a finish wasn't it," Labonte said to ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch in Victory Lane. "I tell ya. Our Kellogg's Chevy ran great all night there. The lap cars, you know, were running side-by-side racing each other at the end and Dale caught me and gave me a little shot in the back there. I just stood on the gas and we beat him across the line. It was a good run for us."
In 1999, the two tangled again, however this time Earnhardt Sr. was able to use his patented bump and run maneuver to get around Labonte and take the victory. Earnhardt Sr. pleaded innocence during his winner's circle ceremony.
"I didn't mean to turn him around," the Intimidator said with a wry smile. "I just meant to rattle his cage."
In another marquee Bristol melee that remains a fan-favorite during water cooler discussions, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth came together for an unscheduled meeting along the front stretch while they were racing for the lead midway through the Night Race in 2012. Following the wreck they both provided different versions of the event and Stewart was so mad that he threw his helmet at Kenseth's car as he pulled down onto pit road.
Stewart was fuming so much he told reporters in the heat of the moment that his new quest in life was to derail Kenseth at every opportunity.
"I'm going to run over him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year, every chance I've got," Stewart said angrily in the aftermath.
There has been so much carnage over the years during Bristol's Night Race, veteran racer Brad Keselowski says drivers enter the race hoping for the best, but in the back of their minds they expect nothing less than a crazy, wild ride.
"It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy because it gets so much attention that I think the drivers get caught up in the hype of the Bristol Night Race," said Keselowski, who claimed a Night Race trophy in 2011. "I know I did when I won there. It felt like a bigger win to me because of the hype that you get out of that race. As goes the good times goes the bad times where the bad times seem to hurt a little bit more and you get more frustrated by it. That short track environment is more prevalent to see those types of incidents that make you mad, make you upset. With an environment that feels electric sometimes we feed into it."
Perhaps award-winning crew chief Ray Evernham best summed up what makes the Night Race so intense for the drivers and so drama-filled and edge-of-the-seat exciting for the fans.
"The track is always slick and hard to drive," Evernham said. "It's hot. It's noisy. You're tired. Plus, it's toward the end of the year and you're racing with all those guys all year long. Just about everybody in the field has made you mad at some point during the year. You're short on grip, you're not feeling good and you're short on patience. When that choice between bumping into somebody or not comes along, you're not going to put yourself out. You're already upset because it's a long night."
Earnhardt Jr., who will also compete in Friday night's Food City 300 XFINITY Series race during his final weekend at the legendary Tennessee half-mile, will battle for the victory alongside many more of NASCAR's elite drivers in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, including defending winner Kevin Harvick, seven-time Monster Energy Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, young guns Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, two-time season winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, and Austin and Ty Dillon, along with veteran drivers Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Indy winner Kasey Kahne, Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
In addition to watching some of the greatest racing on the NASCAR circuit, there are so many cool options to make a complete weekend of family fun, including great video entertainment provided by Colossus, the world's largest center-hung video screen, lots of party zones like the Bristol Lawn Party, premium VIP experiences like the Chairman's Experience, tailgating, on-site camping, concerts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
And for families who want to bring the entire clan, Bristol Motor Speedway officials are making it easier than ever for kids to have an awesome experience. Kids' tickets (12 and under) are free and adult tickets are $30 for the Wednesday, Aug. 16 UNOH 200 Camping World Truck Series race and the Bush's Beans 150 Whelen Modified Series race. Friday night's (Aug. 18) Pinty's Qualifying and Food City 300 XFINITY Series event features adult tickets starting at $35 and free kids tickets. On Saturday night (Aug. 19), kids' tickets are only $10 for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, while adult tickets start at $69. For all races, each child must have a physical ticket in hand to enter the gates. The Bristol Motor Speedway ticket office and www.BristolTix.com are the only two authorized locations that can produce the free kids' tickets.
To purchase tickets to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, please call 423-BRISTOL or buy them online at www.BRISTOLTIX.com. Tickets can also be purchased directly from any neighborhood Food City store.