The campfires, the laughs, the racing, the music, the sights, smells and the check off your bucket list. Fierce clashes and heart-stopping finishes are hallmarks of the most popular race in NASCAR, and if history’s any indication The Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race is guaranteed to entertain guests with yet another epic battle inside the Last Great Colosseum! Join us at America's Night Race. See you in August. It's Bristol Baby!
By Ben White
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, considers Bristol Motor Speedway to be his all-time favorite short track in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition.
WATCH DALE JR. BATTLE BACK FOR 2ND PLACE IN THE 2016 FOOD CITY 500
Earnhardt Jr. began his own Cup career in 1999 and set his sights on getting a BMS trophy or two of his own. Through the April 24th Food City 500, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer has 26-career Cup victories to his credit, including the XFINITY Series and Cup Series events in August of 2004.
Now with the 2017 season designated as his last as a Cup series driver, he has his sights set on adding another Cup victory to the list. Nothing would make him happier than for one of many wins to come in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race scheduled for August 19, 2017.
Earnhardt's legion of loyal fans would cherish the sight of their beloved driver rolling into victory lane one last time in his final Cup Series start on the storied concrete oval.
"We're excited about how good our cars are," Earnhardt Jr. said on the Hendrick Motorsports website. "(Crew chief) Greg (Ives) is doing an awesome job, and so is the whole team. They are putting some great cars on the racetrack. I love racing at Bristol. I always look forward to racing there. There's just no other track like it."
In the track known affectionately as The Last Great Colosseum, Earnhardt Jr. agrees every seat in the house offers the best view of the most exciting battles for track position anywhere on the 36-race Cup series circuit.
So where does Bristol Motor Speedway rank among his favorite places to race or watch a race?
"Bristol fights for that top spot," Earnhardt Jr. said in an interview with Athlon Sports in 2015. "I always loved going there as a kid. It's one of the more exciting racetracks to be at as a fan. I used to go watch my father race (and) being able to run around the pits and garage area all weekend long. When they were preparing to race and then sit down and watch the race, there's not a bad seat in the house at Bristol. And it's as much fun to race there as it was to see. It's very special to me and my heart. It's a tough race to win, but it's a great feeling when you do."
All told, Earnhardt Jr. enjoys a record of 15 top-fives, 26
When asked what he loved about the track in victory lane that night, Earnhardt Jr. coined the phrase; "It's Bristol, Baby!" Fans still describe it the same way today.
"When we swept in '04, that was a great, great weekend to be able to win the Nationwide (XFINITY) race and the Cup race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We lapped all the way up to sixth place in the Cup race. We had this long, uncharacteristic green-flag run where we had to pit under green. We ended up lapping a lot of cars. Our car was just the class of the field that night."
When Cup series teams get to Bristol Motor Speedway to race under the lights, drivers will be looking to win their way into NASCAR's 10-race playoff system set to begin Sept. 17
"I can say right now, (the goal for 2017 is) winning races," Earnhardt said at his retirement announcement April 25th. "We feel very confident that's not out of the question. Greg (Ives) and I have had more communication this year than ever. We started this offseason sort of admitting to each other that we both could put more into this relationship. And for us to be successful or more successful, we've both
"Obviously, if we win a few races, we make the playoffs and get a chance to run for the championship. One thing leads to another."
A Cup series victory in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race would certainly be the perfect way for Earnhardt Jr. to go out in style. Plenty of fans will be on hand to experience what they hope will be his final win at the track.
Be sure to reserve your seat now for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race so you can witness Earnhardt Jr.'s last race at The World's Fastest Half-Mile by calling 423-BRISTOL or visiting BristolTix.com.
Ben White has covered NASCAR for the Lexington N.C. Dispatch for 34 years. He has also written for a variety of motorsports publications and authored many books about NASCAR.
Bristol Motor Speedway Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell participated in a media interview session this afternoon to discuss his thoughts regarding today's announcement by NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What were your initial thoughts when you heard that Dale Jr. had made the decision to retire?
"I was a bit surprised at the timing, but I'm excited for him and glad he’s able to do this on his terms as he has wanted to do. His family is such a part of this sport. After what he struggled with last year you want him to be able to call the shots on his terms."
What does he mean to this track? His sweep weekend here is one of the most memorable moments here. He’s the most popular driver, so he’s a big part of the show.
"He is and his father was and prior to that Darrell Waltrip was and Rusty Wallace. He’s in great company. They’ve all had great impacts on our sport and will continue to. If you look back on those other names, like Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, they continue to make an impact on our sport. Jeff Gordon is doing the same thing now. I think you’ll see Dale Earnhardt Jr. do the same thing. He’s going to be around in the sport."
Do you know if this announcement has already increased ticket demand for the August race?
“There’s certainly a buzz around. If I am a race fan I want to see him on the high banks that one last time. He hinted in his press conference about possibly running some Xfinity races in the future, which will be exciting too. But you’re going to want to see him in these last few Cup races he has for the remainder of the season. We hope he is able to turn this season around and finish on a strong note. I have a feeling this has been weighing on him for a while. It should free him up and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come alive in the last part of the season.”
With him stepping out of the car, we’ve seen other popular drivers also step out of the car like Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart recently. What impact do you feel his retirement will have on the sport?
“It is interesting timing, but I think all sports go through these phases. If it’s a Michael Jordan or any of those others when you go around sports and kind of name the greats. I have never seen in my history with this sport, about 25 years or so, the crop of young talented drivers that we have coming up. There is so much excitement and enthusiasm and you can go down the list with Kyle Larson, Ryan Blayney and Chase Elliott and on and on. I am excited to see how those guys are going to come along. I am really excited to hear Dale reference that he wants to be a mentor to those guys and show them the ropes and there’s no one better to do that. I think it bodes well for the future of NASCAR.”
With the struggles he’s had early this year do you think getting this news out of the way will help him relax and enjoy the rest of his time this season?
“I would think the last year has weighed heavy on him and he has had a lot happen to him in the past year. This has got to be a big relief for him to be able to get it out there and then just focus on driving the race car and I know he wants to do that for his team and his fans. He wants to be able to finish strong.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. today announced that he will retire following the 2017 NASCAR season.
This morning, NASCAR's 14-time Most Popular Driver broke the news to his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports race team, followed shortly thereafter by a press release from Hendrick Motorsports to publicly announce the retirement. According to the release, Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick first met about the driver's decision on March 29.
Earnhardt will discuss his decision during a 3 p.m. ET press conference at Hendrick Motorsports (streamed live on NASCAR.com/presspass).
Throughout a career that spanned parts of 19 seasons and more than 600 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Earnhardt captured 26 wins, including two Daytona 500 victories. He came close to winning the championship on several occasions, finishing in the top five in points four times. Prior to joining NASCAR's top level, Earnhardt won consecutive titles in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 1998-99.
While driving, Earnhardt set himself up for the future, starting his own race team that competes in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. His teams have won 32 times, and captured the 2014 championship with Chase Elliott - who many believe will assume the crown as NASCAR's most popular driver.
But Earnhardt's immense legacy will lie in the relationship he forged with millions of NASCAR fans. Even during the leanest of performances, Earnhardt's bond with his fans secured him the Most Popular Driver Award following each of the last 14 seasons, which is a NASCAR record.
He was also well-respected among his peers, and the outpouring of respect on social media following the announcement was immediate and plentiful.
Tweeted teammate and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, "You're a hell of friend and teammate @DaleJr, I'm really happy for you and [wife] @AmyEarnhardt."
Tony Stewart, who retired following the 2016 season, tweeted, "I'm proud of my great friend @DaleJr for everything he's done for this sport. I'm even more proud of who he is as a man. Love you friend."
Earnhardt, who will turn 43 in October, made his first career Monster Energy Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Since then, Earnhardt has experienced the sport's extreme highs and lows. In the 2001 Daytona 500, he lost his father, Dale Earnhardt, following a last lap wreck. The next time the series raced at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. won driving the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet. In 2012, Earnhardt missed two races due to a concussion, but came back two win a combined seven races in 2015-16. And last year, he missed half the season with a concussion, returning this season - his final one.
It was that perseverance that endeared him to millions of fans, and earned him the respect of those closest to him.
Tweeted his wife, Amy: "I'm so proud of Dale for working so hard to get back and even prouder of his courage and self-awareness to make the decision to retire. I'm sure God has many other great plans for him and us!"