BRISTOL — From the concrete grandstands to the middle of the action to what they described as the best seats in the house as ESPN analysts, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have always loved the action at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The longtime friends from Hickory, N.C., recalled Tuesday driving an old Chevrolet Impala owned by Petree’s mother to watch a Late Model Sportsman race at Bristol in 1977. Years later, they were in the mix of some of the Bristol battles which the track is using on its website to promote next month’s IRWIN Tools Night Race.
Petree served as crew chief for seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt when he won the 1994 Food City 500 at Bristol, and a year later was in the pits when Earnhardt crashed race winner Terry Labonte at the end of the night race. It surprised Petree that Earnhardt caught Labonte on the final lap, although he added with Earnhardt behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet, they always had a shot of winning.
“We did put tires on at the end and were coming up through there,” Petree said. “I could see we weren’t going to get there. We got up to second pretty easily, and I thought that was as far as we were going to get. We had the first pit stall and I started walking up to the gas pumps to meet Dale. I knew there was going to be some trouble because Rusty (Wallace) was going to be mad about Dale hitting him 20 laps into the race.
“It did flare up with Rusty throwing the water bottle at Dale. I was just walking past Terry’s pit and gave his crew chief Gary DeHart the thumbs up for congratulations. I walked just past when they came across wrecking. I went as fast as I could go because they weren’t very happy about it and I didn’t want to be in trouble. I guess they were OK once they got to victory lane.”
Jarrett finished third in the No. 28 Ford and had a birds-eye view of the whole incident. A few laps earlier, he believed his car would be the one sitting in victory lane at the end of the night.
“I thought I could run Terry down, but saw that I couldn’t,” Jarrett recalled. “Terry was on older tires and I knew Dale was coming. With four laps to go and I couldn’t catch Terry. At that point, you’re not going to block Dale Earnhardt. They gave me fair warning he had hit everything on his way up there. I moved that time and I watched him wreck Terry at the start-finish line. It was a great battle.”
Jarrett, who was recently named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, had a couple of his own controversies at Bristol. They include a Nationwide race when he got into it with Shane Hmiel, and hitting Bobby Hillin’s car with his helmet, a move similar to Tony Stewart bouncing his helmet off the hood of Matt Kenseth’s car last August.
“The Bobby Hillin deal, that was ’93 and I had won Daytona and run well at Rockingham,” Jarrett said. “I was right there with Earnhardt in the points and I came here and was running second. He had already crashed and I was lapping him going down the back straightaway. He said he was trying to give me room, but he got down on the apron and clipped me in the left rear and tore my car up. I got out and had to do something. I threw my helmet — not that it was going to do any good, but I felt a lot better. It was a good strike, too, hit him right in the window net.”
From the broadcast booth they witnessed last season’s battle between Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth as the two wrecked while battling for the lead.
Jarrett believes the tight competition could lead to another memorable episode during next month’s action. He said the high banks, close quarters and the drivers not willing to give much room at this point of the season may mean somebody else doing something crazy.
It’s also a reason why everyone loves to come to Bristol.
“It’s that type of place,” Jarrett said. “You race so hard. As a driver you want to do well so much and then you have things happen. You just look for that opportunity to be a part of that race.”
Petree said the atmosphere at Bristol is rarely matched at any sporting event.
“I kind of liken it to the All-Star race in that a couple of events have that excitement,” Petree said. “This is the one I felt it first, and every time I walk into this race track, it’s so special. It’s such a unique arena and I’m lucky enough to be involved in some of those special events.”
Now they’re involved in much different roles than years past.
Jarrett remembers being in the infield as a youngster while his father Ned, also a NASCAR Hall of Famer, raced, and later with his own driving career which included both a Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide victory at Bristol.
Petree has been to Bristol in a variety of roles from mechanic to crew chief to car owner. Still, it’s the current role he’s most grateful for.
“I enjoy it now more than ever,” Petree said. “Dale and I get in free and we have the best seats in the house. What more could you ask for?”
Besides the NASCAR duo at Bristol Motor Speedway on Tuesday, drivers from the Global Rallycross series were on hand to promote Saturday’s race.
They included Toomas Heikkinen of Finland, who won the series’ last race at New Hampshire, and American Austin Dyne, who raced in the NASCAR K&N East Series at Bristol in March.
Obviously with a gravel path and a dirt jump, the Rallycross will be a new experience for Dyne.
“It’s going to be different and I don’t know how the cars will react to the banking,” Dyne said. “The stock cars are more stiffly sprung, so I don’t know how it’s going to feel. But I think it will be some good racing.”
The race is a double-header with Monster Truck Madness. Gates open at 2:30 p.m with a pit party, followed by Rallycross racing at 4:30 p.m. Monster Truck action begins at 6:15 p.m.
Two-time X-Games gold medalist Mike Brown returned home to race in the 29th annual Kawasaki Tennessee State Championships last weekend at Muddy Creek Raceway.
The 41-year-old from Johnson City won five of the six motos he entered and won the featured 450 Pro class as well as the Vet Expert. He crashed his KTM on the opening lap of the second 250 Moto and after fell to last place, but worked his way back up to third by the end. Brown’s misfortune gave the overall title in that class to Kyle Bitterman.
The Mega Series returns to action this weekend at Wytheville, Va., while the Hot Summer Nights Series will return to the Appalachian Fairgrounds on Saturday, July 27.