CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was the most famous finish in Bristol Motor Speedway history.
A legend executed a textbook move, a future Hall of Famer lost his chance for a landmark victory, and a sellout crowd responded with a mix of anger and elation.
Welcome to the 1999 Bristol Night Race.
Terry Labonte flashed his trademark sly smile when asked about the final chapter of the event Tuesday afternoon.
“The video speaks for itself,” Labonte said.
That video was replayed during a press gathering at the NASCAR Hall of Fame for the 20th anniversary of the Labonte vs Dale Earnhardt clash at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Here was the scenario.
Recovering from an incident with Darrell Waltrip, Labonte stormed his way through the field and grabbed the lead with one lap to go.
In a moment that has been replayed and rehashed countless times by fans and pundits, Earnhardt made contact with the back of Labonte’s No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet coming off the second turn.
While the Labonte car spun out, Earnhardt zoomed by for the win.
Many fans in the sellout crowd greeted the beloved Earnhardt with a chorus of boos.
Richard Childress, longtime car owner for Earnhardt, said the reaction from fans remains most indelible memory from that hot August night.
“There was a lot of cheering and a lot of booing,” Childress said. “The race itself, I knew it was going to get exciting.”
Longtime television personality Jerry Punch had the task of interviewing Earnhardt. There was nothing normal about this post-race chat.
“Often in Victory Lane, it gets quiet and you can’t hear anything. It didn’t happen that night,” Punch said. “Earnhardt pulls in, the sparks fly and he shuts the engine off.”
That’s when the things got extremely loud.
“Everyone in the stands was passing an opinion, one way or the other,” Punch said. “I’ve never heard the end of a sporting event as loud.”
According to Punch, it took a while for Earnhardt to harness his emotions and collect his thoughts. Then the eventual seven-time Cup champion delivered one of the most memorable lines in the history of the sport.
“Usually when Dale came to Victory Lane, he’s smiling from ear-to-ear and brushing that bushy mustache, but he had a look of bewilderment that night,” Punch said. “Dale wanted to apologize even before I asked the question. Later on, he had the line, ‘I didn’t mean to wreck him. I just wanted to rattle his cage.’”
Labonte, who earned 22 Cup wins along with Cup series championships in 1984 and 1996, offered his side of the Bristol story Tuesday at the Hall of Fame.
“We had a great car, and we were leading the race with 15 laps to go when the caution came out and I got turned around in the corner,” said Labonte, referring to his incident with Waltrip. “I got new tires with five laps to go and I got ahead of Dale in Turn 1.”
Earnhardt then added a notch to his Intimidator image while crafting a chapter to his remarkable career.
“I came in at a bad angle and the car popped out where Dale got in the back of me,” Labonte said. “I spun out off Turn 2 and it ended the race for us. It’s made for some exciting highlights.”
Labonte said Tuesday that he almost added another highlight-worthy move as Earnhardt took his Victory Lap.
“I had the car in reverse and I saw him coming off Turn 2 and rolling down the back straightaway,” Labonte said. “I thought to myself, ‘He may be in Victory Lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it.
“I had it timed perfect. But when I popped the clutch and gave it the gas, it tore out reverse gear and moved about a half-inch.”
As he shared the backstory of his near-miss for retaliation against Earnhardt on Tuesday, Labonte again displayed his sly smile.
“It let all the wind out of my sails and I was like, ‘I guess that wasn’t meant to be,” Labonte said. “It’s a good thing looking back at it because we would have probably had a heckuva fight between the crews.”
Even without that second act, the 1999 Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway is the stuff of history.
“I hadn’t seen (that video) in quite a while, but it was an exciting night,” Labonte said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Another episode in the long-running BMS Night Race saga will unfold on Aug. 17.
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