By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The 1996 running of the Bud at The Glen had it all. A hometown hero brought the fans to their feet en route to the final victory of his career, while a legend was on a mission to prove he was still one of the toughest drivers in the garage.
Two weeks prior to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series visit to Watkins Glen, they were racing at Talladega Superspeedway, when disaster struck for Dale Earnhardt, who was leading at the time. Earnhardt was turned head-on into the outside wall in the tri-oval, sending his car flipping before landing on its wheels just past the start-finish line.
As a result, Earnhardt suffered a broken collarbone and a dislocated sternum, which left him in much pain. Earnhardt stepped out of his car early at Indianapolis the next weekend, and the plan was much the same at Watkins Glen.
However, Earnhardt showed just how tough he was as soon as the race weekend at Watkins Glen started, setting a blistering pace in qualifying to set a new track record and score the pole, with Kyle Petty alongside on the front row.
“I guess the smile says it all,” Earnhardt said. “This just gets everybody back in the right frame of mine. It just shows we’re doing something right. This’ll just fire the guys back up back in the shop and make them that much more determined.”
Though Earnhardt was starting on the pole, the plan was still for Earnhardt to climb out of the car at some point early in the race, giving way to David Green for the remainder of the race, but Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing team would soon learn that Earnhardt had other ideas.
When the green flag dropped on the race, Earnhardt was strong, leading 51 of the first 54 laps, when a caution for Rusty Wallace sliding through oil on the track and into the wall. Under yellow, the majority of the leaders came down pit road for service, but one driver, Geoff Bodine, had a different strategy, staying out and sticking with his two-stop strategy that his team came into the race weekend with.
Bodine would lead for the next seven laps before heading to pit road under green for his pit stop. Just as Bodne completed his pit stop, another yellow flag flew for Ricky Craven being stalled on the track, allowing Bodine to catch back up with the field.
Earnhardt reassumed the lead when Bodine pitted, bringing his laps led total to 54, but when the caution came out for Craven, the leaders all pitted, leaving Bobby Labonte and Ken Schrader as the two cars at the front of the field.
The race went back green for the final time on lap 68 and Schrader was able to pull away in the lead, but the worn tires on Schrader’s car soon allowed those with fresher tires behind him to reel him in. One of those drivers was Bodine, who had piloted his car from outside the top-10 into second with fresher tires and was quickly catching Schrader for the race lead.
The two drivers battled it out for the lead, but Bodine was able to finally make his way past Schrader for the race lead with just eight laps to go. From that point on, it was all Bodine as he pulled away en route to his first win at Watkins Glen, which broke a 54 race winless streak and was also the 18th and final Cup Series win of his career.
“Thank God for this, I’ll tell you,” said the Chemung, New York native. “He’s got me through a lot of struggles in my life in these last two years. He got me through a lot today. This car was terrific. These guys, Paul Andrews, guys at the engine shop, it paid off finally. We planned that two, three days ago, that strategy. We stuck to it and it worked. This is fantastic. Our sponsor, QVC, we can do a lot of shopping tonight. We won, we’re shopping QVC. “
As for Earnhardt, he gutted out a sixth place finish after having his brakes fade on him late in the going. Despite not being able to win after running so well, Earnhardt was still upbeat about being able to complete a full race for the first time since his injury. Still to this day, Earnhardt racing at Watkins Glen with a broken collarbone and a dislocated sternum lives in NASCAR lore as a testament to just how tough the Intimidator was.
When asked how he felt after the race, Earnhardt said: “I can’t say that on TV.”
“I’ve got to thank David Green for coming up and helping us out standing by for me. The car was great. I was a little soft on brakes there at the end; I had used them pretty hard all day. I just didn’t have nothing there at the end to run with the brakes and I think the driver was giving out some too,” said Earnhardt with his signature grin.