By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
As the summer continues to crawl toward an end, the annual Bristol Night Race looms large as an August staple, as drivers throughout the garage area have the race on their bucket list to win. For one driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he will be strapping into the cockpit on a full-time basis one final time this weekend, driving double duty in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series races on the Bristol high banks.
With that in mind, let’s take a trip back to 2004 when double duty at Bristol resulted in a weekend sweep for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
The 2004 season was shaping up to be a career year for Earnhardt after winning three races early in the year, including the Daytona 500, but after getting injured in a crash at Sonoma in a sports car, where he suffered severe burns, Earnhardt’s performance slacked off through the summer while he continued to heal.
Enter Bristol, a track that Earnhardt had yet to win at in any capacity, and the season turnaround would get a much needed boost.
Earnhardt would start off the weekend by winning the pole for the Busch Series race, the Food City 250, his fourth Busch start of the season.
Once the green flag flew, it was all Earnhardt for the majority of the race as he would lead 125 laps in the race including the final 71. Earnhardt would be one of only four drivers to lead that night, with Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick leading, 60 and 54 laps, respectively.
Though it looked like Earnhardt would run away with the race, a caution flag flew with two laps to go, pushing the race into overtime for the first time and giving Kenseth and the other leaders one final shot to try and get past Earnhardt. Earnhardt would get the jump on the restart and was able to hold off Kenseth over the final two laps to score the win by a 0.100 second margin.
“I was worried,” said Earnhardt. “I got a lot of stuff on my tires. We had a caution and I went down on the apron and got a bunch of junk on my tires. The car was sliding around a little bit, but Matt did a good job. He could have run all over me to be honest with you. Last lap, I was chugging through the corners just trying to keep it on the bottom. He laid off of me and it was a good race, a good win.”
“This is pretty cool to be able to get back in the Busch Series and run with the Busch guys. It’s a great series. I want to thank Menards and everything they’ve done with DEI and their support of our company. Hopefully, we’ll get the Budweiser Chevrolet in the same spot Sunday here.”
Fast forward to the next night for the main event at the track known as “The Last Great Colosseum” and Earnhardt would have his work cut out for him to be able to pull off the sweep, starting deep in the field in 30th place.
Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace would combine to lead the first 63 laps of the event, but just after a restart at lap 62, Earnhardt made his presence known, taking over the top spot just two laps later.
With his No. 8 Chevrolet firmly in the lead, Earnhardt would be tough to beat for the remainder of the night.
Though he would face challenges from Wallace, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Burton throughout the caution-filled race, it was all Earnhardt when the checkered flag waved, as he had led 295 laps and beat second place driver Ryan Newman to the line by 4.390 seconds.
Just how dominant was Earnhardt’s drive that Saturday night? Only seven drivers finished on the lead lap. Finishing behind Earnhardt and Newman was Johnson, Burton, Elliott Sadler, Sterling Marlin, and Jamie McMurray to round out the lead lap drivers.
At the time of Earnhardt’s sweep, he became the only driver to ever accomplish the feat, which has since been replicated by Kyle Busch.
The win would help give Earnhardt some momentum into the playoffs, where he would end the season with six wins (a career-high) and a fifth place points finish.
“Man, this is one of the biggest wins of my career,” said Earnhardt. “It’s Bristol baby! You can’t be number one all the time, but that’s what makes them sweeter, that’s what makes the wins sweeter. If they were handed to you, you wouldn’t enjoy them as much. Man, this is huge for me. It’s awesome for my team. They really needed that. This is awesome.”
“I came to a lot of races here when my Dad drove and he made this place magical to an Earnhardt fan. Me being one of them. I might not have done it like he did it just now, but it was pretty damn close.”
Along with the Bristol win being Earnhardt’s fourth of the season, the win also came five years to the day after his late father won the night race in 1999.
“We seem to keep on matching numbers somehow or another. Wherever he’s at, he’s laughing. He’s got to be enjoying that butt kicking. That was a good race. I didn’t think we had that good of a car really, but she was fast!”
So just how big of a party would Dale Jr. be throwing after the race? Well, I think this says it all.
“We’ve got Sunday off. We don’t get that all the time, it’s going to be awesome.”
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