by Matthew Young (@mattbeardyoung)
The equation of fast cars plus dynamic crashes unanimously results in the product desired by all NASCAR fans. Cars speeding around the oval at lethal speeds draws the crowd into the speedway and the drivers’ strategies and near-misses keep them coming back. Add a few spin outs and a crash and you’re hooked for life! Here is a list of ten of the greatest NASCAR races in history.
#10 – 1999 Goody’s 500
On August 28, 1999, fans were treated to a Dale Earnhardt victory that earned him $89,880. Bristol Motor Speedway, said to be a true race fan’s track showcased this race where a classic showdown between Earnhardt and Terry Labonte took place.
Beginning in the 26th position, it only took Earnhardt 65 laps to cruise into the top 10 standings. With number six of ten cautions, lap 299 was a defining lap as many opted no pit which placed them into the top five standings. This included Earnhardt, Labonte, Jimmy Spencer, Geoffrey Bodine and Ricky Rudd. Earnhardt raced ahead and took the leading spot with 121 laps remaining.
Then during lap 410, Dave Marcis came to a stop creating another caution and resulted in officials contemplating whether or not Marcis’ move was a cheating strategy to help Earnhardt since Earnhardt’s car owner was known to have assisted Marcis previously. Ultimately, Marcis faced penalty for this move.
Earnhardt took to the pit on the backstretch and sped out and into the third position following Labonte and Jeff Gordon. Coming off turn two, an outside move enabled him to pass Gordon on lap 426 as he slid into the second place position. An inside move on lap 435 put Earnhardt in front of Labonte as they made their way through turns three and four. With the lead, Earnhardt raced on as Stewart roared up creating a tight three-way fight for the finish.
Labonte made contact with Earnhardt’s car which fired up Earnhardt who decided to “rattle his cage a little bit” as he sent Labonte spinning in a strategy that took him on the inside and into the number one spot. 140,000 cheering fans delighted in this eventful finish as officials reviewed footage from various angles and determined to let the standings remain with Earnhardt in first, Spencer taking second, Rudd with third, Gordon in fourth and Tony Stewart as fifth.
#9 – 1981 Talladega 500
On a track “known for giving NASCAR first-time winners,” Talladega Superspeedway delivered in 1981 with Ron Bouchard’s surprise victory. Darrell Waltrip was a powerful, youthful driver commanding the lead as the cars entered the last lap of the race.
On the back straightway, Bouchard closed in taking a low move yet failed to gain position. With a high move, Terry Labonte attempted to take Waltrip for the lead. As these moves fell into place, Waltrip’s strategy was to move high and pinch Labonte in order to stifle his momentum so these two were side-by-side as they closed in on the finish line.
To everyone’s surprise, Bouchard took his car low under the two leaders. Without realizing this, Waltrip was unable to block low and once he discovered this Bouchard had already sped ahead and it was a three-car-wide spread as they crossed the finish line. With such a close finish, there was uncertainty to the top finisher and replay clearly documented the number 47 car driven by Bouchard as the first finisher. This would be his first and only NASCAR Winston Cup win for his entire career.
#8 – 2010 Aaron’s 499
This record-breaking race took the honors of setting the record for both leaders and lead changes with 29 different drivers leading the pack for at least one lap and 88 changes in leaders.
The race began with growing tension between two of the big NASCAR personalities- Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Gordon had even stated Johnson was “testing my patience” and that “it takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed right now.” This fiery feud ignited two of the wrecks on the track that day. Half-way through the race, there was a 10-car pile up which increased the excitement of the crowd even more.
In the end, Kevin Harvick’s good timing paid off as he made his move around Jamie McMurray as the checkered flag emerged. Harvick edged McMurray across the stripe as the two ended the race side-by-side. With a .11 second victory spread between the two cars, this race provided all the essential elements for a race car fan’s dream race.
#7 – 2000 Cracker Barrel 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s March 12, 2000 showdown earned Dale Earnhardt $123,100 in one of Winston Cup’s closest finishes ever as his .01 seconds was just enough to edge Bobby Labonte. In a race with 17 drivers and 30 lead changes, Mike Skinner was said to be the driver to beat.
Before blowing his engine, Skinner led 191 of 325 laps. Before his day was over, Skinner had left his mark on Earnhardt as his car pushed in Earnhardt’s front right fender on an attempt to block Earnhardt’s car. This contact fired up Earnhardt as he shook his fist at Skinner.
On lap 316, Labonte took the high side and passed Earnhardt on the backstretch, but Earnhardt didn’t give up. In turns 3 and 4, Earnhardt went high and regained the first place position five car lengths ahead of the pack. During the white flag lap, Labonte narrowed in to Earnhardt’s bumper and the two cars continued neck-and-neck during turns 3 and 4 and across the finish line. The .01 second victory was just enough time for Earnhardt to earn his 9th title at Atlanta Motor Speedway and his 75th Winston Cup win.
#6 – 2007 Daytona 500
February 18, 2007 was a day crammed full of controversy and crashes in Daytona, Florida. With only four laps left, a famous wreck eliminated Dale Earnhardt Jr. along with two more cars bringing a red flag and all drivers to a standstill for over 11 minutes. The setting sun had drastically changed track conditions as evidenced in the final 50 laps resulting in 22 of 43 cars accounting for five more collisions.
The cooler track gave a better grip for the tires allowing the drivers to push the pedal to the metal. Mark Martin continued his lead into the last turn of the last lap. With the stripe within reach, Kevin Harvick’s number 29 took the high line as Martin took it low. As the cluster crashed behind them, Harvick charged ahead of Martin to win by two-hundredths of a second.
NASCAR officials originally confirmed a green flag finish, but later changed their call as a yellow flag did come out after Harvick pulled ahead.
#5 – 2000 Winston 500
Amid 170,000 fans, Dale Earnhardt drove to his final win in Alabama. While Bobby Labonte’s 252 points topped Jeff Burton, Talladega witnessed a four and five-wide race with three laps remaining.
After the final pit, Jeff Gordon led as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. motored ahead with Labonte close behind. With four laps to go, the battle for the leading spot heated up as Mike Skinner surpassed Jr. Back in the traffic, Earnhardt emerged from the 17th place position. With a little help from Kenny Wallace, Earnhardt was able to move into the middle with only 2 laps to go.
With Earnhardt and Wallace ruling the outside, Skinner and Jr. took the inside. Jr. moved to make it three-wide, but ran out of space to pass Skinner. Earnhardt, Wallace and Joe Nemechek then raced on and the “Master of Talladega” upheld his name as he crossed the line in first.
#4 – 2001 Cracker Barrel 500
With Earnhardt’s death on NASCAR nation’s mind, Atlanta Motor Speedway would begin the healing process as his predecessor Kevin Harvick drove his number 29 car. Although Dale Jarrett began on pole, Harvick was in the lead by the seventh lap with Jeff Gordon close behind.
On lap 19, Gordon passed Harvick and led 118 of the beginning 142 laps. However, Dave Blaney took over to lead 70 of the next 75, but his run came to an end with 108 to go when he discovered a loose rear wheel.
After spinning out of lap 3, Jerry Nadeau recovered and took the lead during lap 218. Then with 100 laps to go, five drivers tightly forged ahead to Nadeau and the number two spot Jarrett. With 6 laps left, Harvick shifted to the front of the pack with Gordon responding two laps later into the number two spot. Going high, Harvick left the bottom wide open for Gordon; however, he was able to edge Gordon by .006 seconds for the win.
#3 – 1984 Talladega 500
This July race was a photo finish for the spots of second through fifth. There was a fierce battle for the leading position during the initial 160 laps. At 20 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt was in third and passed Terry Labonte with 10 left. It wasn’t long for Labonte to respond as he regained his spot 5 laps later.
Then in the final lap, there was a pack battle behind the leaders. As Labonte held the inside, Earnhardt took the high road in turn two and pushed on for a run to the finish. As Labonte ventured side-to-side, Earnhardt swept past extending the space between him and the rest of the pack. Labonte was then challenged for the next spot by Buddy Baker. Immediately behind them Cale Yarborough and Bobby Labonte battled for fourth and fifth.
#2 – 1992 Hooters 500
Perhaps the most influential race where one era ended and another began and the most successful racer of all time said he “wanted to go out in a blaze of glory; I just forgot about the glory part.” Richard Petty’s accident on lap 95 resulted in a fire and heavily damaged car; yet, with 2 laps left he emerged without any sheet metal to finish his final race.
This race was the first for newcomer Jeff Gordon, but the real attention was on six drivers who were eligible for the championship. The points leader Davey Allison, “odd duck” Alan Kulwicki and favorite Bill Elliott were the three to watch. By lap 210, each had led at least one lap and secured 5 bonus points. Kulwicki’s strategy proved to be the pivotal factor to the win. He switched pit strategy and ended up finishing in second place. His strategy enabled him to earn the bonus for leader of most laps, which in turn gave him a 10 point edge preventing Elliott as the victor. Kulwicki drove his “polish victory lap” along with Petty driving a farewell in one last lap as a tribute to his fans.
#1 – 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400
Darlington Raceway set the stage as Ricky Craven squeaked past Kurt Busch by a fraction of an inch. Amid smoke, the two raced to the finish after making contact many times during this 100th cup race at Darlington.
Early on, Jeff Gordon appeared to be the projected winner, but a conflict that sent him into the wall ended his day in the 33rd spot. With an eventful start and many cautions, Jerry Nadeau’s lap 6 spin out ended up with damage for Kenseth and McMurray. Jack Sprague’s solitary spin six laps later created a big chain reaction as Sterling Martin and Jimmie Johnson made contact and prompted problems for several behind them. Jeff Burton’s motor reached its final destination early. Ward Burton and Ryan Newman were responsible for the fifth yellow and John Andretti made the sixth when he brushed Jimmie Spencer.
After all of this chaos, Busch came up just shy of the win even though he managed to get through losing his power steering late in the race. Craven’s close win over Busch ended a day of wild rides for many drivers which lands this race in the top spot for best races.
Any fan can see, a close finish and a big melee makes the most memories. There are so many amazing races, these create one compilation of the ten greatest of all time. Do you know others who should crack the list? Consider the ingredients for a great NASCAR race and see if your top ten picks really measure up.