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Earnhardt, Labonte dueled in two of Bristol's most famous night races

August 23, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Earnhardt, Labonte dueled in two of Bristol's most famous night races

There Dale Earnhardt stood near the gas pumps at Bristol Motor Speedway, talking to a gaggle of reporters and claiming that he hadn't really meant to get into Rusty Wallace early in the race that night.

He didn't mean to spin Lake Speed, either. Or Derrike Cope.

Or, heck, even Terry Labonte coming to the checkered flag.

NASCAR had banished Earnhardt to the rear of the field after the incident with Wallace, and he spent the rest of the night plowing through traffic with all the finesse of a battering ram. Long before he finally tracked down Labonte on the last lap, the front of Earnhardt's car was a jagged mess. He made contact with the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet coming off Turn 4, causing it to spin sideways off Ward Burton's lapped car. Labonte crossed the finish line first, but he was well out of shape and nosing into the outside retaining wall.

Afterward, Earnhardt grinned that Dale Earnhardt grin of his, playing his cards close to the vest. Had he or hadn't he turned anyone on purpose? This was the Intimidator after all, and with him, it just wasn't possible to quite be sure about such things. All Labonte knew was that his momentum had been slowed at the worst possible moment.

"We got out of synch a little bit on tires," Labonte recalled. "He had a little bit fresher tires than I did, and he was running us down. I caught some traffic right at the end. They were a lap down, racing each other for a position, too. I got to 'em, and I said, 'Oh, gosh ... I can't just stop. I've got to try to pass 'em.'

"I was trying to pass one of them down on the inside and Dale got in the back of me. I just kept my foot in it. I knew I could beat him to the line if I didn't try to save it. I went across the line kind of sideways and hit the wall ... but we won the race."

The race didn't start until after 9 p.m. ET on Aug. 26, 1995, due to rain, and by the time Labonte took one of the most hard-earned checkered flags of his career, it was well into the early morning hours of the next day. There had already been plenty to talk about, but the night was about to get really interesting.

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As Earnhardt discussed his earlier run-in with Cope, suddenly -- whack! -- a water bottle nailed him squarely in the chest. This wasn't a soft toss, either. There stood a furious Wallace, ready for whatever was about to happen. He'd been fuming since Lap 31, when Earnhardt turned him.

And now, it was on, the scene a swirling mass of chaotic images.

"I'll see you in [expletive] Darlington, Dale!" Wallace seethed. "I ain't forgetting this, and I ain't forgetting Talladega." Two years earlier at that superspeedway, contact with Earnhardt coming to the checkered flag had sent Wallace into a vicious series of barrel rolls.

Earnhardt's routine post-race interview was finished. He went after Wallace, not necessarily intent on fighting, but more to maybe settle his rival down, telling him that they would "talk." Andy Petree, Earnhardt's crew chief at the time, told Wallace during the fracas, "Dale didn't do it on purpose ..."

"How the hell would you know?" Wallace shot back.

Earnhardt tried again. "Rusty ... call me tomorrow."

"Yeah, I'll [expletive] call you ... it was 30 [expletive] laps into the race ..." Wallace retorted as they were slowly separated. Above it all, came the resounding call of a fan, "Daaaaaaale ... you're the best!"

Labonte and Earnhardt, two champion drivers with wildly divergent driving styles, had just staged one of the most memorable finishes ever under the lights at Bristol. The very same two drivers would be back for more just four years later.

There had at least been a gray area to Earnhardt's intentions in 1995. Earnhardt had fresher tires than Labonte, and Labonte caught traffic at precisely the wrong time and in the wrong place. Those factors coming together as they did might very well have contributed to the contact that sent Labonte reeling. Maybe Earnhardt turned him intentionally, maybe he didn't.

On Aug. 28, 1999, there was no such uncertainty. Earnhardt flat out, hands down, without a doubt whatsoever, dumped Labonte on the last lap. Then again, Labonte had just given him a shot in the bumper of his own to wrestle the lead away coming to the white flag. Earnhardt had long since built a legend based in large part on his liberal use of pile-driving force to drive under, around or straight through traffic. Get into him, and there was surely going to be payback. With Labonte, vengeance was swift.

Qualifying for that night's race had been the closest in NASCAR history, with less than a quarter of a second separating pole-sitter Tony Stewart from the slowest car to make the 43-car field. Stewart dominated the first half of the race, but when Labonte took over at Lap 300, the Texan proceeded to put on a clinic in what it meant to be as smooth as possible on Bristol's half-mile concrete surface. It's not exactly easy to be on cruise control at a joint where so much can happen so quickly, but Labonte appeared to have the rest of the field covered.

But then came the final 10 laps. Moments after the car driven by Labonte's brother, Bobby, began smoking heavily, Jeremy Mayfield backed his car into the inside retaining wall at the entrance to Turn 3. The caution flag came out on Lap 490, but as he slowed between Turns 3 and 4, Labonte was knocked from atop his perch at the front of the field.

"Back then, you could race back to the caution, but most guys didn't do it," Labonte said. "I was in the process of passing Brett Bodine and putting him a lap or so down, and the caution came out, so I just eased up. I had lapped Darrell Waltrip a few laps before, and Darrell runs into the back of me and spins me out."

Earnhardt inherited the point and wanted to come in for fresh tires during the caution. But because the seven-time champion was pitted on the backstretch after qualifying 26th, he couldn't afford to give up track position so late in the race. Earnhardt, Stewart and Jeff Gordon stayed out, while Mark Martin took right-side tires. Labonte's crew bolted on four fresh tires, and on the restart with five laps to go, he was in fifth place.

Four to go, Labonte had already put the moves on Martin and Gordon.

"It was pretty amazing. I've never seen Dale get booed like that. It was pretty obvious. I think even some of his own fans were booing."


Three to go, Stewart saw Labonte go flying past. Earnhardt was next.

Two to go, Labonte gave Earnhardt a shot going down the backstretch and then another as they charged into Turn 3. Labonte dove to the inside, dropping his left-side tires all the way onto the apron to set up for a drag race to the white flag.

By Turn 1 of the last lap, Labonte was clear. He would not come out the other side pointing in the right direction.

"I just mowed right through 'em with four new tires," Labonte said. "I got to Dale and passed him coming off of [Turn] 4. He hit me between [Turns] 1 and 2 and turned me around. That's when all hell broke loose."

Labonte spun, collecting Stewart, Martin, Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin in the process. Earnhardt zipped across the finish line, and after the checkered flag, got pummeled in the left-rear quarter panel by second-place finisher Jimmy Spencer.

"Terry got into me in the middle of [Turns] 3 and 4," Earnhardt said on ESPN's broadcast. "I was gonna get back to him and just rattle him. I wasn't gonna wreck him. I got to him and just turned him around."

It was at that point Earnhardt uttered one of the most famous catchphrases the sport has ever known, right up there with "Boys, have at it."

"Didn't mean to really turn him around ... meant to rattle his cage," Earnhardt added, again with that devilish smile of his.

Labonte had spent time in the infield care center that afternoon, taking a couple bags of IV fluids to combat an upset stomach. He didn't feel any better afterward.

"Dale gave me a shot down in the corner and turned us around," said a furious Labonte in the next week's issue of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene. "Have you ever heard him say he means to spin anybody out? It depends on who it is. ... He never had any intentions of taking anybody out. It just happens that way."

The crowd, whipped into an almost hysterical frenzy, was going nowhere fast. As Earnhardt climbed from his car in Victory Lane, he was met with a cascade of fury that for once easily outshouted the cheers.

"It was pretty amazing," Labonte concluded more than a decade later. "I've never seen Dale get booed like that. It was pretty obvious. I think even some of his own fans were booing. I'd never heard the crowd like that before, so it was kind of strange. Watching the look on Dale's face on some of the TV stuff, I don't think he really knew what to think about it, either."

Even now, people still talk about the finish. Labonte tagged Earnhardt, and Earnhardt paid him back with interest, two drivers going after each other like there was no tomorrow. It's the very definition of what it means to race at Bristol under the lights.