We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his favorite top-five things about the sport.
The five best-looking cars? Check. The five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars | Biggest cheaters | Biggest what-ifs | Weirdest racetracks | Best racetracks | Biggest scandals | Weirdest announcements
Five greatest fights
Since we started our NASCAR 75th anniversary celebration of countdowns, our topics have run the gamut from toughness to greatness to weirdness. So, it feels only natural that as we roll into the final turns of this Rova-like journey together, that we have arrived at this week’s topic. One that combines toughness, greatness and weirdness, squeezes them together into a fist … and then uses that fist to punch some fool in the mouth.
So, tape up those fingers, put in a mouthpiece, book Michael Buffer to shout his ready-to-rumble thing and rise from your corners of the ring as we present our five all-time greatest NASCAR fights.
Honorable mention: 1972: Wheeler, Baker’s backyard brawl
Buddy Baker was known as NASCAR’s Gentle Giant, a nickname that was the most backhanded of compliments. At 6-foot-6 and 249 pounds, he was massive for a racer but a sweetheart of a man, and his disposition tagged with him with a “fast but soft” reputation. That only became worse when the son of three-time champ Buck Baker struggled to win races, with “only” three victories at the close of 1971, his 12th season in the Cup Series.
To change that reputation, Baker’s friend and PR rep, legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler, decided Baker should take up boxing in the offseason. Wheeler, a Golden Gloves champion, started sparring with Baker in his garage. It worked, as Baker lost weight and felt his stamina increasing.
Then, one day, Wheeler landed a little too sharp of a shot to Baker’s face. The Gentle Giant went full Bruce Banner-turned-Hulk. The workout escalated into an all-out brawl that looked like Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” as it spilled out of Wheeler’s garage into the driveway and eventually into the yard of his next-door neighbor, who called the police to break it up.
“We ended up laughing about it,” Wheeler recalled last year. “Buddy also won a lot more races after that and ended up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, so I take full credit for all of that because I punched him in the nose.”
5. Charlotte 2014: ‘That’s Matt Kenseth!’
For as long as I have been covering NASCAR, I have developed something of a knack for finding myself ringside for some very sudden and very unexpected postrace garage brawls. The best was when I was interviewing Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond, and in the middle of it, we both looked up at the giant screen just as Marcos Ambrose punched Casey Mears, and Dale Jr. said to me, “What the hell? Those are the two nicest dudes ever!”
But never have I been as stunned as I was when we were all posted up behind Brad Keselowski’s hauler after the fall 2014 event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Why BK? Because he had just ended the 500-mile event by clipping Denny Hamlin’s car and also bumping Matt Kenseth’s ride during the cool-down lap. When Hamlin barked at Keselowski in the garage, we totally expected that. What none of us saw coming — especially Keselowski — was notoriously mild-mannered Kenseth coming out of nowhere, sprinting past us all to bolt in between a couple of 18-wheelers, an alley where Brad had no escape, and tackle him like Fred Warner taking down a running back.
It was all caught on live TV, with Allen Bestwick speaking for the entire planet when he said, “That’s Matt Kenseth!”
4. Pretty much the entire 2000s: Biffle vs. the world
The only other time one driver essentially ran through me to go after another was following an Xfinity Series race at Bristol in 2002 when Kevin Harvick ran over me and others to go full WWE and leap off the top of a race car to land on Greg Biffle’s head while “The Biff” was giving postrace interviews.
That was only a small fraction of the feuds that the former Trucks and Xfinity champ found himself caught up in during this century’s first decade-plus, including a 2011 run-and-punch of Jay Sauter in the middle of a race at Richmond, grabbing hold of Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville in 2013 and, in the most infamous live interview of my career, a shoving match with Boris Said at Watkins Glen in 2011 in which Said, ahem, said to me, “He’s the most unprofessional little scaredy-cat I’ve ever seen in my life. He wouldn’t even fight me like a man after. So, if someone texts me his address, I’ll go see him Wednesday at his house and show him what he really needs. He needs a freaking whopping, and I’m going to give it to him.”
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) October 10, 2023
3. Phoenix 2012: Bowyer’s desert dash
We all like to think of Jeff Gordon as Mr. Mild-Mannered, the gentleman racer with the nice hair and the rainbow-colored car. If you really paid attention, though, you know he also raced with a fire akin to the flame stickers that covered that car later in his sport-altering career. See: his 2011 on-track fight with Jeff Burton that Texas Motor Speedway still uses in its promotional material, his 2006 “helmet-on” shove of Kenseth at Bristol and his 2014 pit road melee with Keselowski, also at Texas.
But nothing tops his dramatic duel with Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in 2012, when Gordon believed contact with Bowyer had ended his title hopes, so he returned the favor by hooking Bowyer later in the race. When he exited the No. 24 Chevy back in the garage, Bowyer’s crew was waiting, but Gordon’s crew was ready and a “West Side Story”-level fight broke out. Meanwhile, Bowyer ran the length of pit road and into the garage with ESPN cameras in tow, attempting to bolt into Gordon’s hauler to reignite the fight.
The tension between the two drivers lingered for years, finally set aside when they ended up as broadcasting teammates at Fox Sports.
2. The post-1989 NASCAR All-Star Race bunkhouse stampede
All due respect to those crews, the Battle Royale of team throwdowns will always be what took place in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane following the 1989 NASCAR All-Star Race.
With the white flag in sight, Darrell Waltrip was leading by a few feet over Rusty Wallace, whose Pontiac slid up into the left rear corner of DW’s Chevy and sent it spinning into the infield grass. As Wallace’s team chased the car up the hill to the winner’s circle, their path was blocked by Waltrip’s crew. What followed was an endless series of shoves, punches, at least one biting of fingers and a crewman nearly losing both ears when his headset was ripped off.
The fight was eventually broken up by the police, but the impact of lasted for years. Waltrip decried that Wallace had “let greed overcome speed” and instantly went from bad guy to good guy in the eyes of a grandstand that had long booed him. For Wallace, it was the opposite.
“The next morning there were fans parked on the lake in their boats by my house just screaming at me,” Wallace recalled. “And when my kids woke up there were police cars in my driveway. I was like, ‘Dad had a rough day. I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.'”
1. 1979 Daytona 500: ‘And there’s a fight!’
You knew this had to be the No. 1 fight, right? It’s the one where, even now all these decades later, you can still hear Ken Squier on CBS shouting, “And there’s a fight!”
The short version of this story: Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked each other while running 1-2 on the final lap of the Great American Race, opening the door for Richard Petty to slip by and take the victory. When their cars came to rest in the rain-saturated infield grass between Turns 3 and 4, Yarborough and Allison got out and started shouting. That’s when Bobby Allison, still mad about being knocked out of contention early in the race, pulled over to check on his brother … and ended up fighting with Cale, too.
As Bobby likes to say, “Cale questioned my ancestry and then he commenced to beating on my fist with his face.” CBS cameras cut to the fight live as it happened, the blood-red cherry on top of the first ever flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500, an audience of millions boosted by the fact that a snowstorm had most of the East Coast stuck indoors with nothing else to watch.
Days later, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. called Yarborough and the Allisons onto the carpet at sanctioning body HQ and slapped them with massive fines … that he never collected. “Hell,” Yarborough said years later, “he should have paid us extra for what we did for the sport that day.”