Bristol Motor Speedway is noted for many things. High banks, high speeds, wild crashes, hot tempers and the bump-and-run are just a few of the things that have drawn fans to the half-mile track located in the mountains of upper east Tennessee over the years. But another thing the stadium-like facility is noteworthy for is the number of top stars who have won their first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in ‘The Last Great Colosseum’ before going on to even bigger things.
While there may very well have been others to have done so, this column will focus on the drivers that this writer saw pull their machines into victory lane for the first time in their careers at Bristol. Living less than two hours away from the track, this has been the speedway on which I have witnessed more NASCAR races than any other. My dad began taking me there when I was just 10-years-old and I have made many return trips there as a fan and even a few as a reporter.
Since my dad’s death this past New Year’s Eve, I have fondly reminisced on numerous occasions about our times together at races. And one of the things I have thought about this week is the number of first-time winners we saw take a checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In 1979, as an 11-year-old boy who loved NASCAR, I went with my dad to the Southeastern 500 in the spring of that year. As that race played out it became apparent that a guy driving a yellow and blue No. 2 Chevrolet was going to be a contender for the win. Obviously, there was no way to know that Dale Earnhardt would go on to win seven Cup Series titles and scores of races at that time. What I was most concerned with was the fact that he was beating Darrell Waltrip so I began cheering for him.
Looking back, the historical significance of that race has crossed my mind many times. One of NASCAR’s all-time greats earned his first win that day and then, of course, went on to even bigger things in the following years.
But Earnhardt’s win was not the end of future greats who made their first visit to victory lane in east Tennessee.
In 1986 a young and brash hard charger from the ASA short track ranks entered the Valleydale 500 in a No. 27 Pontiac owned by drag racer Raymond Beadle. Rusty Wallace took the lead on lap 400 and kept pursuers such as Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant and Bill Elliott behind for the rest of the way to score the win.
Following that day, Wallace would go on to capture a total of 55 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races along with the 1989 series championship. Like Earnhardt before him, Wallace’s run to the NASCAR Hall of Fame was launched with a victory on the high banks of BMS.
Still another future champion made his first trip to victory lane at NASCAR’s fastest short track.
In just his second full season as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kurt Busch scored a total of four first place finishes in 2002. The first of those triumphs came at Bristol in a Jack Roush-owned No. 97 Ford. But that certainly wasn’t all for the older of the Busch brothers as Kurt went on to claim the 2004 series title. To date, the current driver for Chip Ganassi Racing has scored a total of 31 victories.
Apart from those drivers winning their first Cup level racers at BMS before going on to championship careers, other pilots who would have solid careers also took their first checkered flag on that track. Ernie Irvan found glory there in 1990 before eventually achieving 15 wins including a Daytona 500. Also, Elliott Sadler earned his first win at Bristol in 2001 when he put the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford in victory lane. Sadler would ultimately win a total of three Cup races along 13 NASCAR Xfinity Series wins.
The bottom line is that Bristol Motor Speedway is a tough place to win. And as is evidenced by the those listed above who this writer witnessed get their first wins on this half-mile, those who do win there tend to have great careers by winning elsewhere.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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