Photo: ASP, Inc.

Throwback Thursday Theater: Earnhardt vs. Labonte at Bristol, Round Two

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Four years after Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte had their infamous run-in at the end of the 1995 Goody’s 500 at Bristol, resulting in Labonte’s crumpled Chevrolet rolling into Victory Lane following a last lap bump from Earnhardt, the two were at it again in the closing stages of the 1999 running of the Bristol night race.

What followed were more fireworks from the two NASCAR Hall of Famers.

Through the majority of the first half of the race, it was the Tony Stewart show, as the rookie led 225 of the first 251 laps of the race, the most he had led to that point in his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

Following a 48 lap stint out front by Jeff Gordon, it was all Earnhardt and Labonte from lap 300 to the finish.

As the race played out, a familiar pattern was beginning to appear as Labonte would lead for a large chunk of laps only to have Earnhardt run him down and pass him to take over the lead for himself. Earnhardt would lose the lead in the pits and everything would repeat itself over again.

With Labonte in the lead as the race reached 10 laps to go, things got a bit crazy up front when Jeremy Mayfield spun on the backstretch, bringing out the final caution of the night. As Labonte was racing back to the caution, he and Darrell Waltrip made contact, sending Labonte’s No. 5 Chevrolet for a spin, flatspotting his tires, and forcing him to pit road.

As a result, Earnhardt was back in the lead with Labonte trapped back in fifth place for the final restart with five laps to go. Many would think that Earnhardt would have it easy with the separation between him and his biggest competitor and only a handful of laps remaining. Not so fast.

Earnhardt took off with the lead on the restart, but Labonte was a man on a mission and his sights were set squarely on Earnhardt and the lead after he quickly dispatched the Stewart, Gordon, and Mark Martin cars to move back into the runner-up spot.

Heading into Turn 3 on lap 499, Labonte made his move on Earnhardt, clearing him as the two crossed the start-finish line to take the white flag. What happened next still lives in Bristol lore.

As the two made their way through Turns 1 and 2 on the final lap, Earnhardt tapped the rear of Labonte’s car, sending him spinning in a billowing cloud of smoke down the backstretch. Earnhardt emerged from the smoke with the lead and held off Jimmy Spencer for the final half-lap to take the win.

Meanwhile, Labonte was unable to get his car refired to finish the race under his own power and was credited with eighth place, the first car one lap down.

Earnhardt was normally a fan favorite, but not that night in Thunder Valley as a shower of boos rained down on the seven-time champion in Victory Lane. Nevertheless, he still emerged from his black No. 3 with his signature grin on his face and explained what happened over the final half-mile to ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch.

“Terry got into me in the middle of 3 and 4. I was going to get back to him and just rattle him. I wasn’t going to wreck him, but I got to him and turned him around. Didn’t mean to really turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage though.”

Meanwhile, Labonte was obviously frustrated with the finish of the race, as evidenced by his post-race comments after being told what Earnhardt had to say in Victory Lane.

“I passed him down the front straightaway and he hit me in the corner down there in (Turn) 1 and 2 and turned me around. That’s about it.

“He never has any attention of taking anybody out. It just happens that way.”

Nearly 20 years later, Labonte recounted the events of that night on Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s “Dale Jr. Download” podcast.

“I was sitting there wrecked on the back straightaway and my car was nosed in the wall. I put it in reverse and I had it running and I saw him coming down the back straightaway, and I thought ‘Alright, that No. 3 is going to Victory Lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it.’

“I had it timed perfect and I sat there and I popped the clutch and that car moved about a half-inch and tore the reverse gear out of it. It didn’t move, so it just kind of let all the wind out of my sails. So, I just got out and went back to my transporter.

“It’s probably a good thing the reverse gear tore out of the car.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.