The win itself didn’t involve a photo-finish, a last-lap wreck or even, at the time, a well-known name. In that regard, the 1979 Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was hardly the stuff of legends.
The race winner, however, became just that. A true legend… born at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt’s first NASCAR Winston Cup victory came on April 1 that year at a track he had never competed on before that day. And the joke was on anyone who didn’t take the 28-year-old North Carolinan seriously.
Earnhardt’s initial Cup win is just one of many significant moments in Bristol Motor Speedway’s 50-year history that occurred during the track’s spring races. For the record, Earnhardt, who eventually captured nine wins at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, beat Bobby Allison by three seconds that day and led the final 26 laps. That win was the first of 76 victories that led to seven championships for Earnhardt, who also was in the NASCAR Hall of Fame inaugural induction class in 2010.
Another significant moment at the concrete oval involved a photo finish. In the closest race in the storied track’s history, 29-year-old Davey Allison outran Mark Martin to the line in the 1990 Valleydale 500 and won by a scant eight inches.
Despite taking the lead from veteran Darrell Waltrip on lap 392 and holding it until the checkers flew that day, Allison had plenty to contend with at the finish. Martin tried to get around him several times, on the inside and outside, to no avail as Sterlin Marlin threatened to take second from him. In Turn 2 on the last lap, Ricky Rudd tapped Marlin, sending him spinning and setting up the tightest finish ever at BMS. Making the win all the more impressive was the fact that Allison started the race from the 19th slot, which meant he couldn’t pit on the frontstretch, making him the first driver in track history to win from the backstretch.
Only one driver in the history of Bristol Motor Speedway has led from start to finish in a race. Cale Yarborough did just that, starting from the pole March 25, 1973, where he stayed – through seven cautions -- for all 500 laps. It was Yarborough’s first of nine wins at BMS and he made it look easy, winning by more than two laps over runner-up Richard Petty.
- Darrell Waltrip’s streak. One of the most impressive records in NASCAR history started in the summer of 1980 at BMS. Waltrip, who would go on to win a record 12 times at his home track, refused to lose at Bristol for four years. He won seven consecutive races, allowing no other driver the opportunity to visit victory lane through the 1984 Valleydale 500. Seven straight race wins and 3,500 laps. Oh, and three poles in a row from the spring of 1981 through the spring of 1982.
- Nobody really considered Bill Elliott a threat when the 1988 Bristol spring race rolled around. Even though he had won plenty of races, he had never won a race on a short track. After starting the Valleydale 500 from the 13th slot, he patiently made his way to the front, taking the lead with a little more than 100 laps to go. Still on point, Elliott was tapped by Geoff Bodine with only 10 laps left, sending the former spinning. Elliott pitted for tires, along with Mark Martin, while Bodine opted to stay out. When the race restarted with three laps to go, Elliott and Martin both managed to get around Bodine with Awesome Bill taking the checkers. Elliott’s first short track win helped catapult him to the championship that year
- Alan Kulwicki’s fatal plane crash en route to the 1993 Food City 500. Kulwicki, the 1992 Winston Cup champion and the defending champion of the Food City 500, died April 1. The following day, his team, still in shock, came to the Speedway before the realization of the previous night’s tragedy hit them. On a gray, rainy morning, the Hooters’ hauler took a memorial lap around the track before heading home.
- Two of Bristol’s most successful drivers – Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon – were involved in another famous BMS moment in 1997. Wallace was leading the Food City 500 on the white flag lap when lapped traffic in Turns 1 and 2 slowed his progress, allowing Gordon to pull up to his bumper heading into Turn 3. Between Turns 3 and 4, Wallace went low to protect the bottom line and then Gordon tapped him. It was just enough to move Wallace up the track while Gordon snuck around him to win his third straight spring race at Bristol.
- Gordon was involved in another scuffle in 2001 -- this time with Tony Stewart. With the pair coming to the checkered flag, Stewart was running fourth, right in front of Gordon. The two made contact and Stewart went spinning into the outside wall while Gordon managed a fourth-place finish. An unhappy Stewart ended up 25th. After the cool-down lap, Stewart located Gordon’s car on the frontstretch pit and, with Gordon still in his seat, drove into the back of the car, turning Gordon nearly 180 degrees.
- Another notable confrontation came to light during – and after – the 2006 race and it featured Matt Kenseth and Gordon. The two were racing for third place in a race eventually won by Kurt Busch, when Kenseth bumped Gordon on the final lap to secure third. Gordon went spinning and dropped all the way to 21st. After the race, Gordon waited for Kenseth on pit road and went after him, shoving him, before NASCAR officials and team members were able to separate the two.
- Richard Childress will not soon forget the 2008 Food City 500, which just happened to be his ninth victory as a car owner. Not only did his driver, Jeff Burton, grab his first Cup win at Bristol, but Childress’ other drivers, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer finished second and third, respectively. The 1-2-3 finish was the first of Childress’s career as a car owner and a first at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Those races are just a sampling of spring race highlights from the last 50 years. More will certainly occur Sunday when NASCAR’s elite return to Bristol Motor Speedway to vie for the Jeff Byrd 500 Presented by Food City trophy.