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‘One of the best finishes of all time’

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 31, 2019 at 12:40 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It remains the most iconic finish in Bristol Motor Speedway history.

Participants in the famous Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte finish from the 1999 August night race as well as BMS officials were on hand at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the famous finish, two weeks before the Monster Energy Cup Series returns to BMS on Aug. 17.

Labonte, who had been leading the race, spun late after contact with Darrell Waltrip. He pitted, got fresh tires and stormed back through the field, passing Earnhardt as they came to the white flag.

On the final lap, Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet got into the back of Labonte’s No. 5 Chevrolet coming off turn 2, sending it into a spin. Earnhardt powered on to the win, while Labonte finished eighth in his wrecked race car.

Then came Earnhardt’s famous comment from victory lane: “I didn’t mean to wreck him. I just meant to rattle his cage.”

On Tuesday, some of those involved in the famous race shared their memories of that night — which came four years after another famous BMS finish in which Earnhardt hit the back of Labonte, but Labonte crashed across the finish line first.

JERRY PUNCH, ESPN pit reporter on the build-up

“Terry Labonte won that race in 1984 — the year he won the championship — but in the middle of that race he got spun out by Dale Earnhardt. That was 15 years before the 1999 spin. But to understand what happened in ’99, here’s Earnhardt, 48 years old, and he’s not won a short track race since 1995 at Martinsville and he’s not won a non-restrictor plate race since 1996. All he’s winning are plate races and the rumblings of some of the fans are that his talent and skill level is fading.

“He’s got this son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had just won the Busch Series title. People were saying he’s going to come on and Earnhardt is going to retire — some of the fans, the racing papers were saying that. The word ‘retirement ‘was not in his vocabulary. You go to Michigan the week before and Earnhardt drives like the Earnhardt of old. He weaves his way through the final laps at Michigan and finishes second.

“We head to Bristol, where he first won in 1979. There was no question if he had a chance to win at Bristol that night, he was going to win it.”

ANDY GRAVES, crew chief for Labonte

“It was a no-brainer to take tires after getting spun out. He had flat-spotted the tires. In those five laps of green for Terry to get back to Dale and clear him was pretty amazing. Terry was on a mission that night.

“When they came off turn 4 to get the white flag and I saw Terry underneath him, I distinctly remember thinking it’s not going to end well. Normally in that situation, you’re like, ‘We’ve got it.’ But I had that feeling and unfortunately where we were pitted, I saw Terry drive into turn 1 and the car bottomed out. Sparks came out and shot Terry up the track enough that’s how Dale was able to plant him in the left-rear corner. Of course we were upset, but my first reaction was, ‘Yeah, I knew that was going to happen.’ ”

TERRY LABONTE on the spin

“The video speaks for itself. I hadn’t seen it in quite a while, but it was an exciting night. We had a great car and was leading the race with 15 laps to go when the caution came out and I got turned around in the corner. I got new tires with five laps to go and I got ahead of Dale in turn 1. I came in at a bad angle and the car popped out where Dale got in the back of me. I spun out off (turn) 2 and it ended the race for us.

“It’s made for some exciting highlights and it was one of the best finishes of all time. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

CHOCOLATE MYERS, gasman for Earnhardt’s car

“We never considered Terry Labonte to be a rival. He was such a good dude, such a nice guy. When we went to the racetrack, 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 racetrack that night and accomplished what he went there for. He went there to win the race.

“Did he intentionally wreck Terry Labonte? I don’t think he did. 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 him out of the groove. Did he mean to wreck him? I don’t think he did.”

LABONTE on Earnhardt’s victory lap

“After the race, I had the car in reverse and I saw him coming off turn 2 and rolling down the back straightaway. 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 was going to back into him and T-bone him. I had it timed perfect and when I popped the clutch and gave it the gas, it tore out reverse gear and moved about a half-inch.

“It let all the wind out of my sails and I was like, ‘I guess that wasn’t meant to be.’ It’s a good thing looking back at it because we would have probably had a heck of a fight between the crews.”

The next time the two talked to each other was the following week at the drivers’ meeting in Darlington. According to Labonte, fellow driver John Andretti was between them and joked he was in the wrong spot, breaking the ice.

Labonte admitted he thought about retaliating at another track but never followed through because eventually his own racing plans outweighed the revenge factor.

JERRY PUNCH in victory lane

“Often in victory lane, it gets quiet and you can’t hear anything. It didn’t happen that night. Earnhardt pulls in, the sparks go off and he shuts the engine off. You could hear it got louder. Everyone in the stands was passing an opinion, one way or the other.

“I’ve never heard the end of a sporting event as loud as that night. There weren’t all boos. There were probably 30 to 40,000 OK with seeing ‘The Intimidator’ back. That’s the man in black and that’s what it’s all about. I’ve never heard the noise get louder when the race was over like I did then. I’ve never seen the look on Dale’s face like that night.

“Usually when he came to victory lane, he’s smiling from ear to ear, brushing that bushy mustache. He looked over at me, looked over at the sparklers in a look of bewilderment. He 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.’ ”

MYERS on the aftermath

“Terry Labonte didn’t look that mad although I know he was disappointed. Some of the other people on the team and the fans were mad.

“I remember Richard Childress said when we’re getting ready to leave, ‘Boys, you may want to take those Goodwrench shirts off before you leave the racetrack tonight.’ ”

RICHARD CHILDRESS, Earnhardt’s car owner

“What stands out the most is the crowd being so loud that night. There was a lot of cheering, a lot of booing and a lot of happy people. The race itself, I knew it was going to get exciting.

“These two races stick out more than any others. Terry and Dale had a lot of great races up there through the years. With these, Terry won one of them and Dale won one of them.”

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