BRISTOL, Tenn. - The drivers waved fists, punched ambulances, bent fenders, threw shoes, made obscene gestures and were sent to racing's time out corner.
But the key to winning Saturday night's temper-laden Sharpie 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway was one of the slightest bumps of all.
Pole sitter Jeff Gordon gave Rusty Wallace a small tap with less than two laps to go, making enough room for one final pass for the lead and the victory to break his 31-race winless streak.
The bump punctuated a night of big hits and hot tempers. When Gordon drove his front bumper into Wallace's trunk, Wallace backed off the gas for just a second; it was all Gordon needed to shoot back into the lead.
"There wasn't any way he could have passed (without hitting me)," Wallace said. "It's frustrating when you run this hard and you get nailed and get turned sideways. I was trying desperately to get to him.
Gordon, who hadn't won since September 2001, said the victory was so important, so necessary, it felt like his first. He said he hopes Wallace understands his actions.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, and Kevin Harvick finished fourth. Matt Kenseth took fifth, followed by Kurt Busch, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer, Bobby Labonte and Mike Wallace in 10th.
Bristol is regarded as one of the most competitive speedways on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but Gordon and Earnhardt took turns dominating the first 373 laps. Earnhardt led the first 130 laps; Gordon led the next 116. Earnhardt went back out front for the next 10 laps, and Gordon stormed back to the front on the 257th lap.
They had no trouble finding their rhythm, but a rash of caution flags made it difficult for anyone else to get into a groove. There were 11 caution flags in the first 333 laps - 10 for spins and crashes.
Tempers flared early when Joe Nemechek knocked Elliott Sadler into the inside wall in Turn 4 on Lap 70. Sadler climbed from his car and pointed to his eyes as Nemechek passed, gesturing to the driver that he should have been watching.
The biggest pileup came on the 299th lap when Dale Jarrett plowed into Jeremy Mayfield's rear bumper on a restart. Jarrett skidded in front of the entire pack and Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, Michael Waltrip and Ryan Newman all wrecked trying to avoid the melee. Jarrett and Mayfield were a lap down; Burton, Busch and Labonte all were running in the top 10 at the time.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.