BRISTOL, Tenn. – Richard Childress slipped into a Harley Davidson T-shirt and slipped out of the pits at Bristol Motor Speedway.
He snuck up to the press box with Dale Earnhardt, who also had changed out of his famous black and white firesuit, avoiding legions of angry fans still stewing about one of the most famous finishes in NASCAR history.
There was only so long the owner of the No. 3 Chevrolet could remain incognito, though, after Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the last lap to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race at the high-banked short track, and Childress’ luck ran out the next morning while getting breakfast at Hardee’s after a sponsor appearance in North Wilkesboro.
“I walked in, and there was a line, and this little old lady,” Childress said recently with a chuckle. “I never will forget it, she come up to me and said, ‘You’re Richard Childress, aren’t you? I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘You’re the dirtiest car owner in NASCAR, and you have the dirtiest race driver. Terry Labonte is the finest man out there and the best race driver. You should be ashamed of yourself.’
“That’s a true story. Never will forget that young lady.”
“Yeah, it might have been my aunt,” Labonte, who was sitting alongside, cracked. “I don’t know.”
The famous dustup between Earnhardt and Labonte, which left more than 140,000 fans screaming at full volume for nearly 20 minutes after the race, is the subject of a narrative edition of the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast.
The episode recounts that fateful full-moon night at Bristol from the perspective of several on-track principals and behind-the-scenes players in the pits, victory lane, the scoring tower and the announcer’s booth.
The most memorable part of that Saturday night? The crowd, which mostly booed Earnhardt (a nine-time winner at Bristol).
“It was the loudest moment in sports by a group of fans,” Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Marcus Smith said. “It was absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most memorable moments in all of sports and certainly in NASCAR.”
Here are some highlights of what many people recalled about one of the most controversial and thrilling finishes in NASCAR history:
THE SETUP AND THE SPIN
The Goody’s 500 began with rookie Tony Stewart on the pole position and leading 225 of the first 251 laps. He wouldn’t lead again after that, though, as the second half of the race became a duel between the two stars who had battled for a win at Bristol four years earlier (when Labonte crossed the finish line sideways after being wrecked by Earnhardt at the checkered flag).
Labonte took his first lead on Lap 300 and traded the lead with Earnhardt seven times over the final 200 laps.
Kevin Triplett, then-NASCAR director of operations who was one of the officials in the scoring tower: “It came down to Dale and Terry. They changed the lead several times. It was similar to a really close basketball game where the lead gets swapped a lot and Terry would take it for a while, Dale would take it for a while. There are all of these other things that go on in a race at Bristol, but they had settled in that this was going to be between the two of them. Little did we know at that point how much it was going to be between the two of them.”
Andy Graves, crew chief for Labonte: “Terry is one of the smartest drivers I’ve ever worked with. He’s one of those guys all of a sudden you look up with 100 laps to go, and there he is. He was just real quiet, methodical, going about his business. Took care of the car really good and always would be able to communicate back the changes that he knew he was going to need for the last 100 laps. We always had good finishes at the end.
“We really weren’t very good the first half of the race, but as the rubber laid down, and it started getting choppy that’s what we had tested for, and sure enough, our car came in, and I think from Lap 300 on, we definitely had a pretty good car.”
Labonte was pulling away from Earnhardt with 15 laps to go when smoke began trailing from the car of his younger brother, Bobby. Fluid on track from the expiring engine caused Jeremy Mayfield to spin, bringing out a yellow. As Labonte slowed down from the lead under caution, he was hit from behind by Darrell Waltrip, who was scrambling to get a lap back during an era in which NASCAR still allowed racing back to the caution flag.
Labonte: “Darrell said he sure was glad Dale spun me out, otherwise, he’d have been the one blamed for it. When the caution came out, you raced back to the caution. It was a gentleman’s agreement. You didn’t do that unless you were unlapping yourself or keep someone a lap down. I was lapping Brett Bodine, I eased off the gas, and Darrell ran into the back of me, turned us around. Sitting there backward thinking, ‘This is wonderful.’ With 10 laps to go, backward in 3 and 4.”
Graves: “It was really a no-brainer to pit at that point after getting spun out. He had already had flat-spotted the tires. That really wasn’t that much of a magic call. You pretty much had to do that. In those five laps of green for Terry to get back to Dale and get underneath him and clear him was pretty amazing. Terry was on a mission that night for sure.”
Labonte restarted in fifth on the final green flag, quickly passing Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. He had gotten past Earnhardt off Turn 4 to take the white flag before they made contact.
Andy Graves: “Usually when you’re chasing down the leader and coming to the white flag off Turn 4, and you see your driver get underneath the leader, usually, you’re pretty happy. You’re thinking, “OK, we’ve got it.” Right then, I was like, ‘This is not going to end well at all.’ I had this weird gut feeling, and unfortunately, where we were pitted, I had a clear shot to see Terry drive into Turn 1. He had to enter lower because he was side by side by Dale, and unfortunately, the car bottomed out. If you watch the replay, sparks came out, which shot Terry up the track just enough that’s how Dale was able to really plant him in the left-rear corner. I think if Dale had hit him square in the back bumper, we would have been fine. But unfortunately with bottoming out and shooting up one groove, it was just enough. Of course we were upset, but I think my first reaction was, “Yep, I knew that was going to happen.’ ”
Labonte: “I got under Dale on the white flag. I had a bad angle, the car bottomed out, and Dale got in the back of me. We spun out off 2, and that was the end of race for us. Made for some exciting highlights.”
One final attempt at revenge backfired for Labonte after he was spun.
Labonte: “I was sitting there on the back straightaway and had my car running again and had it in reverse, and I saw him come off Turn 2, and he was rolling down the back straightaway, and I had it timed perfect, and I thought to myself, just like it was yesterday, I said, ‘Well that No. 3 might be going to victory lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it.’ And I was going to back into him and T-bone him. And I had it timed perfect, and when I popped the clutch and gave it the gas, it tore reverse gear out, and the car moved about a half-inch. And just let all the wind out of my sail right there.
“I was like, ‘Well, guess that wasn’t meant to be, either.’ Probably a good thing looking back on it that reverse gear tore out of it, because we probably would have had a heck of a fight with our crews and stuff, so … that probably wouldn’t have been good for any of us.”
A crowd of 140,000 remained riveted by the postrace scene, incessantly cheering and booing at ear-splitting volumes as replays and interviews were shown on the large video screen in the middle of the infield.
Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN pit reporter who interviewed Earnhardt in victory lane: “Probably the most eerie time I’ve ever seen in a victory lane. Every word he said, it got a little bit louder. You know the end of a race, three hours of engine roaring. Thunder Valley, Bristol Motor Speedway, and it gets quiet when the race is over, the guy in victory lane cuts his engine off, everyone shuts their engines down, and it gets nice and quiet. It’s almost eerie. Well, that didn’t happen that night. Earnhardt comes in, the sparklers go off, he shuts the engine off, and it got loud. It got very, very loud.
“I’m looking at him, and I probably did half of his 76 victory lane interviews. He’d be smiling and stroking that big bushy mustache. He looks around in a look of bewilderment like, ‘What’s that noise?’ Because literally, there were 140,000 people there, and every single one of them had an opinion on what had just happened. They weren’t all booing. There were a lot of diehard Earnhardt fans there, but there were probably 40,000 Earnhardt fans, and 100,000 who were fans of the other 41 drivers. They all had an opinion. Some were gesturing you’re No. 1 with different fingers. He climbs out of the car and almost before I can ask the first question, he’s apologetic. He says his first phrase, ‘I meant to pay him back,’ and then he goes on. ‘Really just meant to rattle his cage.’ It touched him these were people who were screaming, frustrated and angry. But within a few seconds, he’s Earnhardt, so he won the race and was going to enjoy victory lane, but for just a moment, there was that bewilderment and all the noise.”
Elliott Sadler, who was a rookie making his third Cup start at Bristol: “I remember it like it was yesterday. What I remember the most is two things. One, Bristol has always done a great job of having the big video screen when they do interviews and stuff so the fans can be a part of the interviews after the race and stuff like that. I just remember how loud the fans were booing and all of that. Half of them cheering, half of them booing when Earnhardt was giving his explanation and all the stuff going to victory lane with Terry Labonte and all that. How loud that place was after the race. It’s probably as loud as it’s ever been at any racetrack that I’ve ever been to. And then people were throwing things. The fans were throwing things and not very happy about the outcome of the race. That’s what I remember was how loud it was. The emotion that was in that stadium after that race.
“I remember getting out of the car and the crowd was going crazy and reacting to everything going on. Loudest postrace I’ve ever been a part of. It was absolutely amazing. So much energy in that stadium. It was awesome.”
Dustin Long, NBCSports.com editor who covered the race in his first season on the NASCAR beat: “I remember being up in the press box 20 minutes later pounding on the keyboard, and I heard all this noise again. I looked up, and they were replaying the last lap of the race, and when it came to the bump, all the fans were booing. Three-fourths of the stands were still full, and no one wanted to leave.”
David McGee, Bristol announcer who interviewed Earnhardt on the track PA: “My biggest recollection of that night was the crowd. When the incident happened, 140,000 people or whatever capacity at that time. Most of them were cheering. But you could hear the boos 70-30, 60-40, whatever. And as events wore on over the next few minutes. The booing got louder. Earnhardt was always super popular at this racetrack, and to hear that kind of booing for Earnhardt here. That was remarkable.
“So he comes to victory lane, Jerry Punch does the first interview. We carried PRN over the PA. I go up and ask the same stupid question that he just answered twice. By now, the crowd is really into it. He says it again: ‘I didn’t mean to wreck him. I meant to rattle his cage.’ The crescendo of boos now is like 70-30 against Earnhardt. He was looking around like, ‘Wow, did I make people that mad?’ You could see the look on his face.
“My other vivid memory of that night is nobody left. We’re 10 minutes after the race, usually the crowd is flying out the gate. Everybody stayed. I don’t know what they were waiting for. I don’t know if they thought there was going to be a big fistfight. Finally, Terry Labonte finally came out of the hauler and talked to PRN. He made a comment about, ‘He never means to wreck anybody but he wrecked me anyway.’ The crowd is losing their mind at this point. Jeff Byrd, our general manager at the time, we’re standing in victory lane taking in this scene, and Jeff said, ‘Turn that off, we’ve got to get these people out of here. People are way too upset now.’ I go find our sound guy working in victory lane, and he cut everything off. Silence. Then the crowd starts to dissipate and everyone starts to leave. The energy was just … it was a full moon night. If we’d have kept interviewing people, people would have stayed to watch. They were expecting something else to happen.”
Triplett: “And as loud as it was in the grandstands, on the other side of that glass (in the control tower), I think I remember was a bit of silence from the rest of us just standing there like what just happened? And on the other side of the glass it was anything but silence. I mean this place … I’ve been in and around racing and watching races since ’86-87, and I’ve never heard a combination of cheers and boos and jeers that was that loud at one time in my life, and I don’t remember ever hearing Earnhardt getting booed. Now it wasn’t exclusive. There were cheers and people with 3 hats and black hats waving, before he even got back around on his cooldown lap, it was crazy. I guess the easiest way to explain it was sheer emotion. Regardless of if people were happy he won or mad, everybody, and I usually don’t like absolutes, but I think everyone in the grandstands was yelling something, whether positive or negative.”
George Shaw, Bristol fan who has been sitting in the Turn 1 grandstands since 1997: “I guess the one thing I remember the most, even Earnhardt fans were booing Earnhardt that night. Which kind of amazed me. Because he got booed a lot anyway, but for his own fans, some of them to be booing him, was something I’d never experienced before. One of my best friends was sitting in the row right in front of me and he’s a diehard Earnhardt fan, he’s probably got 300 Earnhardt diecasts and everything. He was booing him. Which absolutely shocked me.”
Chocolate Myers, gas man for Earnhardt: “All the cheers and boos from the fans, the one thing that Richard Childress told all of us, ‘Boys, you may want to take those Goodwrench shirts off before you leave here tonight.’ I took his advice. I had on a T-shirt. When we left that racetrack that night, there were so many people out there, that it was a little scary to be quite honest with you. Because I was so big, I could take my uniform off, and they could still spot me. So I was a little bit concerned. To be part of that back in those days and go there and now be friends and be able to relive those memories, it’s awesome.”
Childress: “Yeah, we had our concerns because there was people that were really upset. I put on a Harley-Davidson T-Shirt when I left. I actually wore it up to the press box with Dale. Yeah, there were some people that were upset. The little old lady the next day in North Wilkesboro who told me I was the dirtiest car owner that had ever been in NASCAR and had the dirtiest driver that had ever been. I thought she was going to whip on me right there at Hardee’s.”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT?
Would NASCAR penalize The Intimidator or even strip the victory? Was the move intentional enough to merit punishment? That was the discussion immediately after the race and in the days that followed among many.
Triplett: “We watched the replay. How do you make that decision of what was going through someone’s mind? There have been times I’ve been in the tower and it was fairly easy. There would be one driver who shall remain nameless, I think it was the last race he wore white gloves. We noticed on the replay there was a very distinct turn of the white gloves. I don’t think he ever wore white gloves after that. We were able to tell there was a very distinct movement of the steering wheel into the car beside him. So that was a much easier to decision to make. We felt confident there was intent there.
“This one, because of the emotion and the reaction, I don’t think we were prepared to do anything at that point anyway. I think it was we’re going to look at this, review this and take a look and see. Because you don’t want to add, regardless of booing or cheering, you don’t want to add fuel to that fire at that point. If you’re going to make a decision, it needs to be with all your faculties about you where it’s not on emotion. It’s on what you have in front of you. Anything that occurred that night would have been on emotion. That was an emotional night.
“It was one of those things like what is the basis (for a penalty)? There were double-digit cautions. How is that any different from the wreck that happened 10 laps earlier for Terry to get tires? We have to peel away all of these other layers of the onion and the emotion. We had to decide what did we know happened and how does that compare to any other racing incident coming to the checkered flag over the course of the years. We decided there’s no there there, or at least not enough to do anything. I think there was a reaction to that. I think some people were disappointed there wasn’t a fine. I don’t remember us ever discussing the win not being a good win. It was more is there a fine or probation. That sort of thing. I don’t ever discussing the win being part of the equation. Then it was how do we determine if there’s a penalty.
Larry McReynolds: “This was a Saturday night race, and on Monday, we were flying to St. Louis to do some more testing with the 2000 Monte Carlo. I got to the (airport) early Monday morning, and Dale drove up. I said, ‘That was an interesting finish, wasn’t it?’ And honestly, it was just him and I standing there, and he kind of dropped his head and said, ‘I’m telling you, that’s not the way I wanted to win that race. I’m not going to give the trophy back, I can promise you that. I really just wanted to nudge him and move him on up out of the way. I hate the outcome was what it was. I know everybody is upset with me. That’s not the way I wanted it.’ I said ‘Dale, I don’t know if I’m buying that or not. You may convince someone else.’ But he seemed very sincere that’s not the outcome he wanted. He was selling, but I wasn’t buying. Because I worked with him and knew what he was like at Bristol.”
Childress: “I talked to Dale the next morning. Honestly, he didn’t mean to wreck Terry. He meant to move him out of the way. The one thing I remember about it was how close we come to losing the race. I think it caught Dale a little off guard that he did wreck, and that Jimmy Spencer almost won the race that night.”
Labonte on when he talked with Earnhardt: “It was the next week at driver introductions. I never will forget it. We were sitting there, and it just so happens we had qualified kind of close to each other at Darlington, and we went to driver introductions, and everybody was standing around waiting for the time to get introduced, and I turned around, and he was standing there, and we kind of looked at each other, and John Andretti was standing there, and John looked at me and looked at Dale and said I’m standing in the wrong place, and that just broke the ice, and everyone kind of laughed about it. We went on around that race.”
THE LEGACY AND THE WAY OF THE INTIMIDATOR
Triplett: “In the legend of NASCAR fandom, it’s become in some instances the legend of NASCAR Woodstock, where 600,000 people were at Woodstock, but 300 million people say they were there. The number of people who say they were at that ’99 race and talk about it is just amazing. And maybe they were I don’t know. It’s just crazy at what happened and the fact that 20 years later people are still talking about it
“I’ve seen a lot of sports, but I haven’t seen anything to compare it to that. You had a couple of legends. Guys now in the Hall of Fame who had won their share of championships and races here between them. 11 or 12 wins. It was just the unbelievable emotion and was sustained and lasted. There were people still buzzing about it. Especially living here in Bristol. It’s not uncommon over the years for people to say I was sitting in Turn 2 and know exactly where they were sitting. I spent 10 years at the speedway, we would talk to season ticket holders and get their memories of why they had season tickets at Bristol. And almost every one of them would say, at some point, they would talk about ’99. It was one of those I was at Woodstock moments.”
Childress: “Dale was a great driver everywhere, but he was really a master when it come to (Bristol) and Darlington. The toughest tracks to get around, Dale was one of the drivers who could manage. He had car control. He had the feel of the race cars, and he had the vision to be able to run as close and tight as he could with cars. That’s what it takes at Bristol.”
Graves: “I’ve never watched the whole race back. To be totally honest with you. Last night just watched a little bit so I didn’t sound totally stupid with my memory here today, but it’s something that I know it’s become one of the iconic finishes in the sport. I appreciate all the history with NASCAR, but I kind of wish that we were on the winning end of that one.
Labonte: “I loved everything about Bristol and still do. It’s one of my favorite races to watch, but it was one of those deals we didn’t come out on top that, but hey, that’s just how things happened. Doesn’t take long. You get over it. You move on. If you held a grudge about something like that, you’d be miserable. If you held a grudge for every little thing that went wrong. So I was always I didn’t hold grudges.
Larry McReynolds: “I worked with Dale for two seasons of 97-98, a) he loved that racetrack. He loved Daytona, loved Talladega, loved Darlington, but he loved Bristol. I saw it all the years of racing against him. How hard he would run you at that racetrack. My last year as a crew chief, 2000, we were leading the race and probably a straightaway lead. I bet Dale was 50 laps down, and he ran Mike Skinner from the wall to the apron for 20something laps. I finally went down there and about knocked Richard off the pit box. Are you not going to do anything? He looked at me, you tell him to move over, I ain’t telling him. That was just Dale. It didn’t matter if it was for the win. It didn’t matter if it was for 10th, 20th. Or he was 50 laps down, he didn’t discriminate. He raced everybody, even his teammates, just as hard.
“I remember one of the races I was working with him, we got ready to go out for final practice, and he was just about to back out, and I said hold on a minute, hold on a minute. Just sit tight a second. I went digging through the toolbox. He went, “What are you looking for?” I said a hammer. What do you want to do with a hammer? I said I’m going to go ahead and just beat the front end off it because I know that’s what I’m going to go tune to all night probably after Lap 10 or 15 because I know you’re going to beat the nose off and the complain about the way the car is driving. He definitely loved that little old half-mile racetrack.”
Richard Childress: “He wasn’t going to give up. He never gave up. One thing that made Dale so great. I remember talking to him about it. Sitting around at Daytona in a rain deal. I said Dale how in the hell do you go so good them last 50 laps or something. How do you get so strong at the very end? He said I want it worse than the rest of them. So that was the Dale Earnhardt I knew.”