This weekend, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway, which is one of NASCAR’s most popular tracks. With a capacity of more than 160,000, Bristol is known for housing rowdy crowds and hosting intense races. They call it “The Last Great Colosseum” for a reason.
Since the track’s first sanctioned NASCAR race back in 1961, there have been a number of incredible and memorable races run there. You probably have even witnessed firsthand a few of those races yourself. But, did you also know that 40 years ago, the Tennessee short track marked the spot of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s first Cup Series win?
It was at the 1979 Southeastern 500 (back when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was still the Winston Cup Series) where Dale Sr. essentially kicked off the career that would include 76 race wins and seven championships.
“It was a major accomplishment simply because it was his 16th Cup start,” racing historian David McGee told the Bristol Herald Courier. “Rookies did not win in that era. You had guys like Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker that won all the races. For a rookie to come and win against all those guys in the field was remarkable.”
Earnhardt would end up taking the lead at lap 474 — wrecking Darrell Waltrip in the process — and would hold the lead until the end, beating Bobby Allison by three seconds. Now, this sort of finish seems like pretty standard fare for The Intimidator, but according to McGee, Earnhardt had not yet come into his own as the dominant driver that NASCAR fans would come to know and love.
“He was a good driver. If you talked to racers who competed with him they said he was competitive, but he wasn’t dominant,” McGee said. “Maybe not the hallmark of someone who is going to go on to such greatness.”
Saying that Dale Earnhardt Sr. went on to greatness would be an understatement, and 40 years after his iconic run at Bristol, we remember the race that pretty much started it all.