CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Andy Graves had a clear view for one of the most storied events in NASCAR history.
The year was 1999. The scene was the August Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The stars were Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. Graves was the crew chief for Labonte.
Flash forward to the final lap.
“I saw Terry drive into Turn 1,” Graves said. “The car bottomed out and sparks came out, and that shot Terry up the track high enough so that Dale was able to plant him in the left rear corner.”
After that high-speed version of roller derby, Earnhardt charged to victory.
“Of course we were upset, but my first reaction was, ‘Yeah, I knew that was going to happen,’ ” Graves said.
The reaction among the crowd of nearly 140,000 was deafening, with a mix of cheers, jeers and boos.
“There were probably 30-40,000 Earnhardt fans and the rest of the crowd was divided,” said Jerry Punch, who handled post-race interviews for ESPN that night. “Most of the Earnhardt fans were happy to see their “Intimidator” back, but probably some of those fans were a little frustrated because Labonte had done nothing wrong.”
Many of the key figures from that 1999 race shared memories during a recent panel at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Chocolate Myers, the longtime fuel man on Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, remembered getting an urgent message from team owner Richard Childress in Victory Lane.
“Richard said, ‘Boys, you may want to take those Goodwrench shirts off before you leave the track.’ Well, I couldn’t do that since I was the biggest guy out there,” Myers said.
So did Earnhardt intentionally wreck Labonte?
“I don’t think he did,” Myers said. “I think he went there and did exactly what he said, he tried to rattle his cage. That means he did the bump-and-run move on him out of the groove.
“Did he mean to wreck him? I don’t think he did.”
For Myers, the 1999 BMS Night Race was just one of many indelible chapters crafted by Earnhardt.
“When you look back on 25 of the greatest moments in NASCAR, I’d say Dale is involved in 20 of them,” said Myers, now a co-host of the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show Tradin’ Paint. “To be a part of all that is the greatest thing in the world.”
The backstory involving Earnhardt’s controversial 1999 triumph is full of intrigue.
Entering that hot August weekend, the 48-year-old Earnhardt had not won on a short track since 1995 at Martinsville and his last victory in a non-restrictor plate race came in 1996.
“All he’s winning at the time are plate races, and the rumblings of some of the fans are that his talent and skill level is fading,” Punch said.
There was also the emergence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had just captured the championship in what was then called the Busch Series.
“People were saying [Dale Jr.] was going to come on and Earnhardt is going to retire,” Punch said. “But the word retirement was not in his vocabulary. We go to Michigan the week before and Earnhardt drives like the Earnhardt of old. He weaves his way through the final laps and finishes second.”
The next stop was Bristol Motor Speedway, site of Earnhardt’s first victory as a rookie on April 1 of 1979.
“There was no question if he had a chance to win at Bristol that night, he was going to win it,” Punch said.
According to Myers, Labonte just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We never considered Terry to be a rival. He was such a good dude and a nice guy,” Myers said. “When we went to the race track, we went there for one thing only.
“I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but Dale Earnhardt was the only guy who went to the race track that night and accomplished what he went there for. He went there to win the race.”
The Earnhardt resume at BMS features one Busch Series victory and nine Cup wins. For the legion of Earnhardt historians, the triumph in the 1979 Southeastern 500 at BMS for California businessman Rod Osterlund holds as much prestige as the 1999 Night Race.
“People talked about that 1979 race as being an April Fools Joke for some rookie to come into Bristol and win,” Punch said. “It was only Earnhardt’s 16th career [Cup] start and he was competing against the legends of short track racing like Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.”
Through a mix of guile, skill and derring-do, Earnhardt grabbed the lead with 26 laps remaining.
“He moved in front of Waltrip and their cars were like three inches apart,” Punch said. “Allison came on as Waltrip faded in the final laps, but Earnhardt hung on to win. The finishing order ended up being Earnhardt, Allison, Waltrip, a guy named Richard Petty, and Benny Parsons.”
Following the event, Allison praised the tenacity and aggressive approach of Earnhardt.
“Sure enough, it was a glimpse of how Dale Earnhardt became the Intimidator,” Punch said. “That’s where it all started.”
Current Fox Sports racing analyst Larry McReynolds, who worked as the crew chief for Earnhardt during his long-awaited Daytona 500 victory in 1998, said the highlight reel finish of the 1999 Night Race did not tarnish the reputation of the seven-time Cup series champion.
“Dale was one of the few drivers, if not the only driver, who could do something like that and still have the respect of his competitors,” McReynolds said.