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April 7, 2020

Terry Labonte relives infamous Earnhardt moment at Bristol

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on on August 15, 2019.

“I was going to T-bone him as he came down the back straightaway.”

That’s what was on Terry Labonte’s mind 20 years ago as his mangled No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet sat on the backstretch at Bristol Motor Speedway during the cool-down lap. The ‘he’ Labonte referenced was none other than Dale Earnhardt, who spun Labonte on the final lap and went on to win one of Bristol’s most memorable races.

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“I thought I had it timed perfect,” Labonte said this summer at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I gave it gas and let the clutch out and the car moved about a half inch and tore reverse gear out of it. I was kind of like ‘Really! OK.’ I wasn’t as mad then after that.”

The incident spawned the famous line from Earnhardt: “I didn’t mean to really turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage though.”

Twenty years after the incident, some choose to believe Earnhardt. Others refuse. One man who sides with the “Intimidator” is his car owner for that race, Richard Childress.

“He didn’t mean to wreck him. He and I had talked. I think really, Terry knows as well that he didn’t mean to wreck him,” Childress said.

Whether he did or didn’t intend to wreck Labonte did not mean much to the fans in attendance that night. Many of those involved say it’s the loudest they have ever heard fans a race track. The mix of cheers and boos still ring in the ears of Childress and Labonte, who were at the center of the action.

Labonte described the post-race atmosphere as “amazing.”

“(Earnhardt) had so many fans and he didn’t hardly ever get booed too much,” Labonte said. “You could tell there were a lot of people there that were not his fans, that were drowning out his fans. I don’t think I have ever been to a race and heard it get … as loud as that.”

“You could even hear the crowd over the engines when they were coming into the garage,” Childress added. “So, I knew it was a moment in history at Bristol.”