Specifically, to the 2004 Aaron’s 499 spring race at Talladega Superspeedway.
There was a controversial, hairline finish between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. because the race ended with a caution flag in the final lap as Jeff was barely half a car length ahead of Jr. when they crossed the finish line.
Being as this was at Talladega and Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a track record (literally) of winning and dominating there, the fans were less than thrilled to see Jeff edge Jr. out like that.
In an episode of the Dale Jr. Download a few years ago, Jeff and Jr. discussed this race and the reaction of fans when Jeff beat him out in such a close finish:
“I don’t remember a whole lot about the race itself, I do remember the finish. That was one of those days I was so glad we didn’t have to race back to the line.
You were passing me, or were at least gonna get your nose ahead of me when that caution came out on the last lap. And I was sitting there going ‘I think I was ahead, I think I was ahead!’
And when they told me I was, I was like ‘Yes!’ And then all of a sudden I realized, uh oh, there’s gonna be a lot of pissed off people in the grand stands.
Cuz I mean, listen, you always had an incredible following back in those days and where the sport was and the enthusiasm, the trendiness of NASCAR and how it was just blowing up, and you were such a huge part of that.
And you know, I played my role in it as well, but to have me and you goin’ head to head like that and for it to come down to a controversial finish, it was one of those times where I’m like, I don’t know if I want to win this race or not, because I also want to get out of here alive.”
Of course, the crazy-ass fans at Talladega had a special way of showing their appreciation for the way it ended. They chucked beer cans onto the track as Jeff celebrated his win and started doing burn-outs:
“I’m not sure if they were Pepsi cans or beer cans, but there’s a lot of aluminum out there on the track that’s for sure. So I did a burn out over all those cans.
When they started throwing all this stuff at me, that was almost, I started realizing that the boos were recognition of what I accomplished.
Leading into this moment at Talladega, I’m thinking there’s no way I’m gonna win this battle with the fans because they want you to win. But I was still damn happy that I won the race.”
And this is the best part right here…
Back in those days, the winning driver had to walk through the stands with the fans get to the press box.
So, if I’m Jeff, I’m thinking I better get a shit ton of security if my ass has to walk through that crowd of people after seeing their reaction to me winning the race:
“After that, when you won [at Talladega] back then, you had to go up to the Unical suite. The grand stands are here and the suite’s are up here and you have to walk.
They were goin’ crazy on my ass. We had to have a lot of security.”
Ya think? Honestly though, Jeff really seemed kind of into it and somehow enjoyed the experience. He thought:
“This is the greatest day of my life.
When they started throwing shit, I was like ‘Yes, this is awesome.’
Not that I encourage people to throw things out on the track, but that is the essence of NASCAR in those days and you wish you had moments like that today and they cared that much about what was happening.”
I have to agree with him from that perspective. The lack of enthusiasm for the sport anymore is pretty concerning, and I miss when people were so invested in their driver and the outcome of the race.
Even if it meant chucking stuff onto the track, at least they cared, I guess.
And, you may be wondering what Jr. was thinking this whole time, seeing as he’s the one most of the fans wanted to win and was the second runner up:
“I thought I was miles ahead of him, I didn’t think it was close.”
I don’t think there’s any footage of him throwing beer cans, though.
Here’s a live look at the shenanigans from the grand stands:
You can listen to the entire story straight from Jeff and Jr. here, it’s pretty hilarious to hear them talk about it now: