By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BRISTOL, Tenn. – The Bristol Night Race is always a race that is circled on the calendar each year for the sheer entertainment value the event provides and the classic moments that have occurred in the race over the years.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started on the front row for the August 2002 running of the famed race in front of a packed house. When all was said and done, the fans would be sure to remember what would transpire in the 500 laps to come.
Gordon would be looking for his first win of the season as he was on a winless streak dating back to Kansas in September 2001, while Earnhardt was looking for his second win of the season.
Earnhardt would get the jump on the start over Gordon, with the two combining to lead the first 372 laps of the race.
More than a dozen cautions later, the final two yellow flags of the day would involve some of the higher profile drivers in the field
On lap 378, the 14th caution of the race would come out as Robby Gordon got into the back of Jimmie Johnson as the green flag flew, sending Johnson spinning into Mark Martin’s No. 6 car in Turn 1. As expected, Johnson made his feelings known, throwing his hands up in the air as Gordon passed under caution. As a result of the crash, Robby Gordon was parked for two laps for rough driving.
“It’s just like every form of racing he’s ever been in, it’s always somebody else’s fault,” said a frustrated Johnson. “He had me turned sideways before we even took the green. I didn’t even have a chance to grab a gear. He was beating my bumper cover off of me coming to the green because he wanted to restart in front of me.
“I’m trying to get my lap back as well, so he’s just crying up a river like he always does. It’s a shame, we’ve got a chance to win the championship and we get spun out before we even take the green on a restart. It’s just wrong.”
Up front, another lead change was underway when the green came back out at lap 388. Johnny Benson held the lead, but rookie Kurt Busch, who won the 2002 spring race at Bristol, was hot on his heels. A lap later, Busch would be past Benson for his first laps led of the evening.
The final caution flag of the night and one of the most entertaining occurred 15 laps later at lap 404 when Ward Burton, who was running near the front of the field was spun by Dale Earnhardt, Jr entering Turn 3.
Burton immediately exited his car, taking the heat shields off his shoes and storming up to the track’s edge to wait on Earnhardt to come back around. As Earnhardt passed, Burton threw his hands up in disgust and then threw his heat shields at Earnhardt’s car before heading back to the ambulance and the Infield Care Center.
“Junior just didn’t take his time,” Burton said. “I mean, we had been giving and taking out there all day. I’ve got some really good words for him, but I can’t say it on TV. I’ve got to just control myself right now.”
When asked about throwing his heat shields at Earnhardt’s car, Burton didn’t miss a beat, saying: “I wish I had something I could have shot through the windows.”
The race would go green for the remaining 77 laps, with five drivers in the mix over that final stint. Busch led until lap 433, when Matt Kenseth was able to pass his Roush Racing teammate to take over the lead. 10 laps later, sophomore driver Kevin Harvick was up front in his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing car, with Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon hot on his heels.
Off of Turn 4 with 19 laps to go, Wallace pulled the classic bump and run move on Harvick to move him up the track and get by into the lead, which was some foreshadowing of what was to come as the finish of the race drew close.
Wallace got clear into the lead as Gordon was able to pass Harvick as well to move into the runner-up position and set his sights on Wallace’s lead.
As the two drivers were battling through lapped traffic with only a handful of laps left, Gordon was able to close the gap on Wallace and made his move with three laps to go. Heading into Turn 3, Gordon applied the bumper to the rear of Wallace’s car, moving him up the track and scooting by into the lead, just as he had done to Wallace in the 1997 spring race at Bristol.
Though Wallace tried his best to catch and pass Gordon in the two remaining laps, Gordon was just too strong out front as he went on to win his fifth race at the famed half-mile bullring.
“It’s just racing, I guess,” Wallace said. “I would have liked to have won. It’s been a long time since I won, but it’s been a long time since Jeff won and I know he wanted it real bad too. We’re real hungry for it. It’s been a long time since I’ve won. I guess my day is coming. Man, I tried real hard, real hard, and you get nailed in the rear end on the last lap and turned sideways, I didn’t expect it.
“He just got to me where he could hit me. I was trying desperately to knock the shit out of him, just couldn’t catch him.”
Meanwhile, Gordon was celebrating his win in Victory Lane for the 59th time of his career and for the first time in the Bristol night race.
“So thankful, I‘ll tell you. You know, I just wanted it really, really bad,” Gordon said. “I just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity. These guys gave me such an awesome race car, great pit stops all night long, and you know, they deserve a win. We don’t deserve to be written about our losing streak, so thank God that’s over.
“I really just want to thank God for everything, getting us through so much. These guys stuck together. This is going to do so much for this race team. Let me thank DuPont, GMAC, Quaker State, Pepsi, Fritos, everybody that just makes this thing happen, Haas, EDS, we’re just so fortunate, Lowe’s, and Chevrolet. It’s just been an amazing night. I feel like this is the first time I’ve ever won.
“He got bottled up in some traffic and I knew if I could get to him, you know, I could make a move. He got real loose and shut the door on me, and once he shut the door on me, I said ‘Alright. It’s fair game right there’. I got into him a little bit and he got loose and I hope he’ll understand tomorrow.”