As the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge prepares for the celebration of its 20th anniversary, the previous 19 editions have evoked everlasting memories of many of the sport’s greatest stars providing the fans with brilliant racing, stunning finishes and occasionally a touch of controversy.
It is these types of memories that have built the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, formerly known as The Winston, into the most thrilling and unpredictable all-star event found in any sport. And what better time than the eve of the event’s 20th anniversary than to have members of an expert panel vote for their favorite moments in the history of the race.
The panel consisted of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, who have participated in 18 of the 19 all-star races; drivers Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd, who have competed in 17 of the events; Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, who has hosted and promoted 18 of the races; NASCAR President Mike Helton, who hosted and promoted the only all-star race not held at Charlotte (Atlanta, 1986); and former Charlotte Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, who has witnessed every one either in person or on television.
By virtue of the panel’s order of preference of the top moments on their respective choices, the following earned the highest voting totals. The top-three moments in descending order are:
No. 3 – “The Tide Slide” (1989): Darrell Waltrip, driving his Tide-sponsored Chevrolet, was leading the race as he was approaching the white-flag lap when hard-charging Rusty Wallace nudged Waltrip, sent him spinning and created the “Tide Slide.” Wallace went on to capture the victory while a displeased Waltrip wound up seventh.
“It was an ugly, ugly win,” Waltrip said at the time. “I hope he chokes on the $200,000, that’s all I can tell him. He knocked the hell out of me. … A lot of guys let greed overcome speed, and that’s what happened today. I got spun out. A guy drove down underneath me and drove up into me and spun me out.
"It was blatant. I had him pretty well covered. I just didn’t want to make a mistake but I guess I made one, letting him get up there.” En route to Victory Lane, Wallace’s car was hit by Waltrip’s and it ignited a scuffle between the two teams.
“I’ll never forget the aftermath of that race, with Darrell telling me to choke on the 200 grand, Todd Parrott and some of my team punching it out with Darrell’s team on pit road and getting suspended and all hell just about breaking out,” Wallace said. “It was something they talked about for years to come and [radio personalities] John Boy and Billy even made a song about that day.” Recalled Wheeler: “We had to hide Rusty to get him to and from the press box.”
In Waltrip’s eyes it may have been an “ugly win,” but in Wallace’s it was a defining moment in his career.
“It was the turning point of my career – and Darrell’s, too. I don’t think there has ever been in the history of our sport a situation where in a split second the roles are reversed like that – totally reversed,” Wallace said. “Darrell became the hero there in that race and I became the villain. D.W. didn’t have the greatest fan appeal back then – he was a driver who the fans either loved or hated – it was just that simple. Well, that day he became the good guy and that image lasted with him all the way until he hung the helmet up.
“Man, it really did fireworks for my career. I was still a young guy on the way up. I’d finished second to (Bill) Elliott in the points in ’88 and hadn’t really stirred up any big buzz until that day. It definitely put my name and face on the map and I got booed for years to come after that one. I’m just so grateful that I was finally able to get back in the good graces with all the fans and have them all know that I really am a good guy.” Wallace also built off the momentum of the win and went on to his only series championship.
“That whole season was so special for me and that team,” Wallace said. “We won the big all-star race at Charlotte and went on to win the championship that same year. Like I said, that day and that race was a very big part of the sport’s history I think. I know how huge it was as far as the big picture goes for me; that’s for sure.”
No. 2 – “Pass In The Grass” (1987): Many dubbed this all-star moment the catchy “Pass in the Grass,” but Helton called this “the defining moment for Earnhardt.”
Whatever you want to call it, it was classic Earnhardt.
As the final 10-lap sprint got underway, Earnhardt exhibited his aggressive nature that earned him the nickname “The Intimidator” as he made contact with his fellow leaders at that time, Geoffrey Bodine and Bill Elliott. Elliott retaliated by making contact with Earnhardt and sent him through the grass on the frontstretch. However, Earnhardt continued to mash the gas, regained control of the car and somehow miraculously maintained the lead and captured the dramatic win. Both Bodine and Elliott bumped Earnhardt’s car following the checkered flag and tempers flared.
“A lot of things were going on when the green flag dropped,” Elliott said of a restart with a few laps remaining at the time. “He hit me several times. If a man has to run over you to beat you, it’s time for this stuff to stop. What he did wasn’t right. When a man pulls over and lets you by and then tries to run you into the wall, I’d say that was done deliberately. I’ve been beat on at Watkins Glen, Talladega and here by one car, Earnhardt’s. If somebody doesn’t do something about this, we’re coming back next week and we’ll see what happens.”
“This whole deal is between me and Bill and it has nothing to do with our teams,” Earnhardt retaliated. “We knocked each other around, but it’s all over now as far as I am concerned. But if Bill still wants to do something about it, then I’ll stand flat-footed with him any day.”
Rumor had it that when Elliott returned home he threw out any jeans he had by Wrangler, which was Earnhardt’s sponsor at the time, and vowed never to wear a pair again. Elliott was livid about Earnhardt’s antics, but it sure made for a great show.
“That’s about the nearest you could get to good old grassroots racing,” Wallace said. “The only thing better would have been if it were at night. Earnhardt was like a man possessed and he drove like an absolute madman. He was always aggressive, even in the points-paying races, but the fact that Humpy promoted this thing as a ‘no-holds-barred, winner-take-all’ shootout I think only worked to make Dale stand even more on the gas.”
Added Wheeler: “It’s still one of the most talked about moments in racing history.”
No. 1 – “One Hot Night” (1992): Little did Wheeler know at the time of conceiving a promotional tagline for the 1992 event – “One Hot Night” – that it would deliver more than anyone could imagine on its billing. Before the cars even turned a wheel, this event already had a special place in not only all-star annals but motorsports history overall as Lowe’s Motor Speedway became the first superspeedway to run at night under the lights. “We shocked the world by lighting a superspeedway,” Wheeler said.
The night racing and the ambiance it created was a spectacle in itself, but then the main event put this one over the top as the No. 1 moment in all-star history.
“This was such a unique event because it was under the lights for the first time,” Helton said. “Plus, it was great racing all through the field all night long and culminated with an exciting finish. It possessed all the elements for a great all-star moment.”
Three of the sport’s stars – Dale Earnhardt, Davey Allison and Kyle Petty – were involved in the frenzied last-lap finish that crystallized this moment. On the final lap, Petty tangled with race leader Earnhardt, spun him out of the way and appeared on his way to a victory. However, Allison charged up to Petty for a checkered-finish duel that was decided by mere inches at the line. To add to the dramatic finish, Allison and Petty made contact and Allison crashed after the checkered fell and did not get an opportunity to celebrate the win in Victory Lane as he was transported to the hospital with a concussion.
“The wreck at the end was just as much my fault as it was his,” Petty said afterward. “We were leaning on each other. I tried to chop him off, but if I had cut across in front of him, I would have ended up in the infield. At the end, he cut on me as I would have on him. We clipped when we came across the line.”
Although Wallace was not part of the mix, he still enjoyed the theater the moment provided.
“That was one where the finish should be on the highlight reels forever,” he said. “Crashing sideways into the wall there at the checkers – we were all glad that Davey wasn’t hurt and it was a special memory personally about him. He’s one of the guys that I’d jokingly told about the way I’d like to be remembered in winning them – flipping upside down and skidding on the roof sideways across the finish line with sparks flying and the thing ablazin’ with the crowd going ape crap. Well, he pretty damned near did just that there on that night.”(LMS PR)(5-12-2004)