Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – It was 1999, and hunting buddies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte, both champions in NASCAR’s foremost series, were planning their annual postseason trip.
Then the night Race at Bristol intervened, and the hunting trip never happened.
In one of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history, Earnhardt wrecked Labonte on the final lap to win at the .533-mile short track for the last time.
Labonte had the fastest car that night, but he pitted for tires after Jeremy Mayfield wrecked on the backstretch with 11 laps left. That put Earnhardt in the lead for a restart on Lap 496 of 500. With only a handful of cars on the lead lap at that point, Labonte restarted fifth and charged forward on fresh rubber.
He passed Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in short order. On the lap prior to the white-flag, Labonte caught Earnhardt, gave him a nudge in Turn 3, dropped to the apron and powered his No. 5 Chevrolet past Earnhardt’s famed black No. 3 to lead Lap 499.
Labonte’s stay at the point was short-lived. In Turn 2 on the final circuit, a bump from Earnhardt sent Labonte spinning across oncoming traffic. With cars colliding behind him, Earnhardt sped to the checkered flag trailed by Jimmy Spencer, who had avoided the crash.
As Earnhardt circled the track on his victory lap, Labonte already was plotting his revenge.
“I didn’t tell this for a while, but after the race I was sitting there on the back straightaway, and I had my car running again,” Labonte said. “I had it in reverse, and I saw him come off Turn 2 there, and he’s rolling down the back straightaway, and I had it timed perfect.
“I thought to myself—just like it was yesterday—I said ‘Well, that No. 3 might be going to Victory Lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it.’ I was going to back into him and T-bone him, but when I popped the clutch and gave it the gas, it tore reverse gear out of the car. It moved about a half-inch.
“That let all the wind out of my sail right there. I was like, ‘Gosh, I guess that wasn’t meant to be either.’ It’s probably a good thing, looking back on it.”
But if Earnhardt escaped retribution on the race track, he heard the displeasure of the crowd that packed the grandstands—deafening displeasure. The chorus of boos all but drowned out Dr. Jerry Punch’s interview with Earnhardt in Victory Lane, but the occasion did produce one of the Intimidator’s most famous quotes.
“Didn’t really mean to turn him around—meant to rattle his cage, though,” said Earnhardt, who appeared sheepish after a win for what might be the only time in his career.
“The thing that stands out the most was the crowd was so loud that night,” said Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner, during a 20th anniversary celebration of the 1999 race on July 30 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “There was a lot of cheering, a lot of booing, a lot of upset people, a lot of happy people.”
Judging from video of the crowd, the “upsets” outnumbered the “happys” by a substantial margin, just as the number of middle fingers dwarfed the number of forefingers as Earnhardt rolled past on the cool-down lap.
“I don’t think I’d ever heard him be booed like that,” Labonte said. “Of course, Bristol’s so loud, but, yeah, that was pretty amazing.”
In fact, to offset possible confrontation as the No. 3 team left the track, Childress urged his crew members to change out of their trademark Goodwrench uniforms.
“Yeah, we had our concerns, ‘cause there was people that were really upset,” Childress said. “I put on a Harley-Davidson T-shirt when I left, and I actually wore it up to the press box with Dale.”
The animosity lasted past race night. When Childress stopped at a Hardee’s in North Wilkesboro for lunch the following day, he was assailed by an unlikely antagonist. A woman, described by Childress as “a little old lady,” approached him and asked if he were Richard Childress.
“She told me I was the dirtiest car owner there had ever been in NASCAR and I had the dirtiest driver,” Childress said. “I thought she was going to whoop up on me there in Hardee’s.”
Not one to let a grudge linger, Labonte thought about retaliating in the races that followed but never did. Within a week, when the series moved to Darlington for the Southern 500, the antipathy already had begun to dissipate. That’s when Earnhardt and Labonte spoke to each other for the first time since Bristol.
“It was the next week at driver introductions, and I never will forget it,” Labonte said. “We were sitting there. It just so happened that we qualified close to each other at Darlington. We went to driver introductions, and everybody’s kind of standing around, waiting to get introduced, and I turned around, and he was standing there.
“We kind of looked at each other, and John Andretti was standing there, and John looked at me and he looked at Dale and he said, ‘I’m standing in the wrong place.’ That just broke the ice, I guess, and everybody just kind of laughed about it.”
But as for the hunting trip? It never happened.
“We talked about it, but we didn’t follow through on it,” Labonte said. “Took us a little bit to get over it.”