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Column: Bristol needs "cage rattling" to spark playoff push

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) It was 20 years ago when Dale Earnhardt Sr. spun Terry Labonte to win a Saturday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt was chasing the trophy - the playoffs didn't exist, no stages, no bonus points - and The Intimidator simply wanted the victory. Labonte had squeezed past Earnhardt to momentarily take the lead and Earnhardt immediately spun him out of his way.

The crowd at the packed Bristol bullring jeered Earnhardt's aggressive move, and the seven-time champion dismissed the criticism.

"Didn't mean to really turn him around, meant to rattle his cage, though," said an unapologetic Earnhardt.

Two decades later, there is so much more on the line as NASCAR returns to Bristol on the anniversary of one of the most famous finishes in series history. There are only three races left to make the playoffs and only nine drivers have locked in their slots. Jimmie Johnson is on the outside of the top 16, desperately trying to work his way into a chance to race for a record eighth championship.

As NASCAR looks back - fondly, no doubt - on that hot summer night showdown between a pair of Hall of Famers, perhaps there needs to be a whole lot more cage rattling at this stage of the season.

Bristol, particularly its August race around the 0.533-mile concrete, gladiator-style oval, was always one of the toughest tickets in NASCAR and boasted 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982 through 2010. The track accommodated 30,000 fans at the start of the streak, but expanded as most NASCAR promoters did during the 1990s to an obese 161,000 seats because fans were pouring through the gates in record numbers at venues across the country.

When the 2008 economic crisis began, and fans were no longer willing to pay inflated prices for hotels along the Tennessee/Virginia line, the crowd began to dwindle. The sellout streak ended two years later, Bristol's great Coliseum has removed roughly 20,000 seats since and the track didn't even bother selling tickets in the turns for the spring race in April. In a cruel twist, the Darrell Waltrip grandstand was closed on the same weekend the 12-time Bristol winner announced his retirement as Fox Sports' longtime analyst.

The cost of a weekend at Bristol - the get-in price on the track website Monday was $80 and lodging is typically $300 or more per night at nearby motels - has certainly harmed attendance for the former bucket list sporting event at a track that marketed itself as the site of a raging tempest where drivers could lose their cool and explode in anger. Jeff Gordon once shoved Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart threw a helmet, middle fingers are the common form of communication and tempers are typically at the boiling point.

Of course, fans can argue the racing just isn't the same as it was in 1999 when Earnhardt used his bumper to win a race. First came alterations to the Bristol track surface. Then drivers became scared of upsetting a sponsor with bad behavior. NASCAR's rules package has since eliminated many of the opportunities for the bumping and banging that made the sport so popular.

Drivers also don't want the drama that comes with a feud. Johnson and Ryan Blaney found themselves embroiled in a weeklong saga after the two made contact two races ago, Johnson felt Blaney showed a lack of respect, and Blaney didn't back down from his position. It took a conversation over beers to smooth things out between the two, but it was a headache neither wanted as they jockey for berths in the 16-driver playoff field.

Problem is, NASCAR needs rivalries and controversies and drivers willing to rattle a cage to get a win.

Especially now, in a rebuilding period for NASCAR, and with seven slots open in the playoff field. Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer are all mathematically eligible to make the postseason, but Daniel Suarez, Johnson and Paul Menard are lurking.

Bristol was once a special stop on the NASCAR circuit for its intense on-track action and the anger it aroused in the field. It's time to race hard again, to take no prisoners at Bristol and lock down playoff berths. There's too much on the line to play nice or race for points, and it would do the sport a world of good if the drivers attacked Saturday night the same way Earnhardt did 20 years ago.

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Updated August 12, 2019

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