Greatest Races Ever

1986 Richmond 400- This might have been the most unpredictable finish in the history of stock car racing. With three laps to go there were just five cars left on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt was leading, but Darrell Waltrip passed Earnhardt on the back straight. Going into the third turn Earnhardt tried to retake the lead, got into Waltrip’s Chevy and they both went spinning. In the process of wrecking they managed to collect Joe Ruttman and Bobby Allison two of the other cars still on the lead lap. A shocked Kyle Petty found himself leading the race, which would end under caution. It was his first career win for Kyle.

Understandably there was a great deal of ill will after the race. Many folks were calling for Earnhardt to be suspended or hung by the neck from a stout rope. Earnhardt made the eminently logical argument that if he’d done it on purpose stating “If I was trying to wreck him I wouldn’t have wrecked myself too.” Car owner Junior Johnson said what Earnhardt had done to DW was no different than if he’d put a gun to Waltrip’s head and pulled the trigger. Earnhardt was put on probation and the debate about that race raged on until a hot August night in Bristol in 1999.

1992 Pontiac Excitement 400- Bill Elliott dominated much of this race, one of four in a row he won early in the 1992 season. But in a coincidence that foreshadowed that season’s season ending race, Alan Kulwicki came out of nowhere to race Elliott right down to the wire. As they came off the fourth corner on the final lap Elliott and Kuwlicki were side by side inches apart. They began beating and banging against one another only in the final few yards to the finish line and Elliott prevailed in a photo finish.

1981 Champion Spark Plug 400- Yes, back in the old days MPH not MPG used to decide who won at Michigan. 1981 was the first year of the “little cars” (110 inch wheelbase) and the teams were all still figuring those cars out that summer so the competition was very equal. Richard Petty took the lead with five laps to go but in the era of the draft leading the race usually wasn’t where a driver wanted to be on the final lap The advantage usually went to the driver who was running second on the final lap and could time a slingshot pass to take the win. But that particular day second place Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip got to arguing about that second spot and let Petty drive away from them. Still the finish was incredibly close with the top seven finishers all coming home within a second of one another. And want to talk about a bizarre driver substitution? Morgan Shepherd filled in for Mark Martin in the car Martin’s family owned that day.

1990 Valleydale Meats 500- The weekend didn’t start off well for Davey Allison. He had a poor qualifying effort and in that era Bristol had two pit lanes. Allison had to pit on the back straight, a decided disadvantage. Early in the race Allison got a piece of a wreck involving Rookie of the Year candidate Rob Moroso. To try to improve his track position Allison stayed out when most of the leaders (who had pits on the front straight) stopped for tires under a late caution. It was a gutsy move that saw Allison restart the race ahead of a lot of other strong cars on fresh rubber. Mark Martin began methodically stalking Allison and out of the final corner the two Fords were side by side running wide open to the finish line. The finish was so close no one was quite sure who had won until NASCAR checked the finish line camera and decided Allison had prevailed by a margin listed as “eight inches.” What that translates into in thousandths of a second I can’t say but the finish looked every bit as close as Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch this spring at Darlington.

1972 Wilkes 400- I have to laugh when I hear newer fans discussing a feud between folks like Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch. Oh, they’ve tangled a few times, but it’s nothing like the feud that came to a boil between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison late in the 1972 season. Those two cats flat out hated one another probably because in that era one or the other of them was likely to win every race if they didn’t manage to kill one another first. (Of 31 races run that year Petty and Allison combined to win eighteen of them and each had 25 top 5 finishes.) Things got heated up at Richmond that fall when Petty got into Allison in one corner and to show his appreciation Allison returned the favor in the next. The impact but the 43 car up and onto the guard rail but Petty’s car not only returned to the track on all four wheels, the King went on to win the race. That set the stage at North Wilkesboro a few weeks later. As usual Petty and Allison were the class of the field, but for the final three laps it looked like rather than trying to win the race both drivers had decided the other fellow wasn’t going to finish. Contact was frequent and heavy. Allison's Monte Carlo ended up with all four fenders rubbing against the tires and the entire cockpit was filled with tire smoke. Petty went on to win the race by two car lengths. But even after the checkers fell the merriment wasn’t over. One of Allison’s fans was so angry he jumped the fence into Victory Lane and took a swing at the King. Richard’s crew chief grabbed Petty’s helmet and clocked the intruder upside the head. Petty was whisked away to the press box for his own safety as more fights broke out in the grandstands. Yeah, Miss Manners would have crapped a kitten but the Wilkes 400 set the high-water mark for short track frammin’ and bammin’.

2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400- Most fans will remember this spring’s thrilling finish at Darlington with Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven battling to the line, fenders rubbing, tires smoking and fans in the grandstands hollering their lungs out. And that my friends is about as good as it gets. For many newer fans bought to the sport by FOX or NBC (and I am told such people exist though I’ve never met one) it was their first look at what a real stock car race looks like.

There are a lot more races I could include. As noted earlier in this story Dale Earnhardt finally winning the Daytona 500 was a memorable race for most fans. So were the first Daytona 500 wins for Darrell Waltrip and Buddy Baker both of who were equally star-crossed in the Big One. Ernie Irvan’s 1993 Winston 500 win was a great finish but that race was marred by a terrible last lap crashed that injured title contender Rusty Wallace when NASCAR made an ill-advised decision to restart the race with two laps to go after a rain delay. Earnhardt’s holding off Bobby Labonte at Atlanta in the spring of 2000 was a great finish and Kevin Harvick holding off Jeff Gordon at the same track a year later in only his third start was an emotional victory few of us will ever forget. The same can be said for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the 2001 Firecracker 400 just months after the same track claimed his dad’s life and the wild celebration that followed. But I’ll stick by my picks above, at least for a week. If you want to nominate a race as one of the best ever, feel free to go to our message board by clicking on the “Discuss” icon below this story.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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