History of the Food City 500: Jeff Gordon storms on the NASCAR scene in the 1990s and proves to be one tough contender in the Food City 500
Bristol Motor Speedway has always been a track where certain drivers would figure out a secret and become a regular in Victory Lane, often ending in an extended winning streak. In the 1970s it was Cale Yarborough with four in a row. In the 1980s it was Darrell Waltrip winning seven in a row.
The trend continued in the 1990s when a young California driver with a background in open wheel racing proved that he had what it takes to tame the famed all-concrete high banks.
Jeff Gordon's arrival in NASCAR opened up a brand new era of Hollywood glitz and glamour for the sport, but when it came to getting physical at The World's Fastest Half-Mile, Gordon proved that he could still go Old School when needed.
"Jeff was very smooth," said racing historian and author David McGee. "He stayed out of trouble and had amazing car control. He always had a good team, always had a good car, he was always in the mix. He qualified really well here, not always on the pole, but he was always in the mix and that's a real key in winning at Bristol. You want to be among those four to six and seven cars that are among the leaders. If you're back of the pack chances are you're not going to have a good day at Bristol."
Gordon quickly realized that to do well at Bristol, you needed to be ahead of the chaos. In his first four Cup Series appearances at BMS in 1993-'94, Gordon watched his wrecked race car get hauled away three times. Undeterred, he turned the trend in 1995 and was able to bring home his first victory at The Last Great Colosseum, taking the checkered flag at the Food City 500. He won the race again in 1996, and for good measure kept the streak going in 1997 and 1998.
"I always loved this place. I was always in awe of it," Gordon has said. "I think most competitors are, and the fans. I competed on some high-banked racetracks, but never in a stock car and never quite like Bristol.
"Bristol is one of those tracks that brings the fan out in all of us."
Gordon's Bristol winning streak was a bit different than both Yarborough and Waltrip's streaks. He never dominated in quite the way those two did. He just found a way to win, and part of that was due to his Hendrick Motorsports team's overall strength, led by crew chief Ray Evernham. Gordon's crew, known as the "Rainbow Warriors" as a tie-in to his rainbow paint scheme on his DuPont Chevy, created magic on nearly every pit stop.
"They weren't just mechanics, they weren't just guys from the shop or guys that they just picked up, they were trained professional athletes who wore t-shirts saying 'Refuse to Lose' and they meant that," McGee said. "They pitted that car with a level of speed and efficiency that had never been seen before and that was a huge factor in the 1996 Food City 500, because there was a series of pit row stops and they got him tires and gas. The 'Rainbow Warriors' got him in and out in front and not soon after that the weather came and stopped the race. That was a key to his victory, and the 'Rainbow Warriors' were that good."
With his sudden rise to stardom, Gordon found out quickly that NASCAR Nation stays true to its storied heroes. Especially at Bristol Motor Speedway, which the majority of fans wore silver and black gear and were die-hard followers of The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevy.
The contrast between Gordon and Earnhardt created quite the rivalry and it was always on steroids at Bristol.
"Gordon had kind of a love-hate relationship with the fans," McGee said. "A lot of the older fans didn't love him because he was from California; he wasn't from the Midwest or the Southeast. He had that Manhattan style about him with the way he looked, the way he talked and the way he carried himself. He changed the style a little and it took the fans a while to warm up to him because they didn't know how to take him, or they didn't like him and let's face it, he had quite the rivalry with Dale Sr. And Earnhardt had a massive following here at Bristol. Bristol was a Dale Earnhardt-track, no question about that. The Earnhardt fans were not too welcoming to Jeff Gordon during the pre-race introductions around here. He would often get the most boos.
McGee says that Earnhardt respected the racer in Gordon and the two elevated the sport with their on-track battles in the 1990s.
"I think Gordon saw Earnhardt as the guy to beat," McGee said. "And I think Earnhardt was a little envious of him. Here's this new guy coming in and stealing his thunder and his attention because it was during that time that Gordon and Earnhardt were really battling each other for the championship pretty much year-in and year-out. It was quite intense."
Gordon also mixed it up with another of the sport's veteran drivers, Rusty Wallace, who holds the record for the most Food City 500 victories at six. Gordon's 1997 Food City 500 win included a late lap battle with Wallace, who finished his career with nine wins at BMS.
"They had a good old fashioned Bristol battle," McGee said. "Both cars were very fast. Both cars led that day. Both were in the mix. Wallace took the lead into the white flag and Gordon was right behind him and when Gordon and Wallace came out of turn two, Gordon gives him a little tap and they're together going into turn three and four, then Gordon bumps him again, causing Rusty's car to come out of the groove and Gordon took the opportunity and dashed in there and took the checkered flag."
Wallace, who led 240 laps of the race, was fuming after the race.
"Rusty never got over that," McGee said. "That happened twice to Rusty here at Bristol with Gordon (also 2002 Night Race) and of course Rusty is a nine-time Bristol winner, but he will talk about the ones that got away more, and he believes that those two against Gordon are the ones that got away from him the most."
Not quite as revered in Bristol Motor Speedway lore as the two Earnhardt-Labonte bumper-banging finishes, Gordon's 1997 Food City 500 bump and run to get past Wallace is definitely up at the top on the track's all-time highlight reel of exciting finishes.
"That certainly was interesting," said Gordon, who finished with five Bristol victories in his career and is now the lead race analyst for FOX's NASCAR coverage. "It was pretty tight down there - that's what Bristol's all about. You get down to the closing lap at Bristol and it's every man for himself. I've seen it done many times.
"It was just typical, wide-open Bristol racing."
As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31st for the milestone 60th running of the Food City 500, race teams will be hoping to put together a multiple-race victory streak and have the opportunity to utilize the trademark Bristol bump-and-run just like Gordon in the 1990s.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food City 500 will be held for the first time in history without fans in the grandstands. Everyone is encouraged to tune in to coverage of the race on FS1 or PRN at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 31st. Many of the greatest stock car racers in the world will compete, including BMS dominator Kyle Busch, who is going for his third Food City 500 win in a row and sixth overall, second-generation star Chase Elliott, three-time Bristol winner Matt Kenseth, 2019 Night Race winner Hamlin, veteran Clint Bowyer, six-time BMS winner Kurt Busch, two-time Food City 500 winner Jimmie Johnson and rising star Ryan Blaney, among others.
Also included on NASCAR's revised race event schedule without spectators is the Cheddar's 300 presented by Alsco NASCAR Xfinity Series Race, rescheduled for Saturday, May 30 at 3:30 p.m. That race also will be broadcast on both FS1 and PRN.
Food City 500 weekend ticketholders on file may choose to receive an event credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent, or choose to receive a full refund of their purchase price.* The event credit can be applied toward any admissions, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, suite and premium tickets, camping, fan hospitality and pit passes. The 120-percent event credit can be used during the remaining 2020 or 2021 seasons for a NASCAR sanctioned event conducted with fans at any Speedway Motorsports owned track, subject to availability.
Fans are advised to keep their current tickets and asked to complete an exchange request form at www.bristolmotorspeedway.com to start the process. Ticket office representatives will follow up with fans within four weeks regarding the status of their request. Ticketholders should email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-415-4158 with further questions.
*Shipping, handling and services fees not included in event credits or refunds. Ticketholders have 30 days to request a refund; those who do not request a refund will automatically receive the 120-percent credit.