With the 2019 season serving as the 50th anniversary of Richard Childress Racing, we plan to dip into the archives to present the stories of iconic moments, race wins, championships and much more as part of our weekly Throwback Thursday series.
Bristol Motor Speedway has always held a special place in the hearts of Richard Childress Racing fans, as the organization has recorded nine NASCAR Cup Series wins and eight victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
While many drivers have taken RCR-prepared cars to Victory Lane, perhaps none were more infamous or wild as when Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 3 GM Goodwrech Chevrolet to victory during the 1999 Bristol night race, at the expense of Terry Labonte and much to the chagrin of the crowd in the grandstands.
Before getting into the details of that night’s race, we have to go back to the 1995 Bristol night race, when Earnhardt and Labonte famously fought for the win under the lights. Labonte’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was leading in the final laps as Earnhardt’s No. 3 RCR Chevrolet was quickly closing in on the bumper as Labonte was caught behind lapped traffic.
With Labonte stuck behind the slower cars, Earnhardt drove his car to the rear bumper of Labonte and sent the No. 5 sliding across the track to take the checkered flag as he slammed the nose into the outside wall.
That incident and finish would be cemented in NASCAR history, as Labonte pulled his heavily-damage car, still billowing smoke into Victory Lane, while Earnhardt had to settle for second place.
Fast-forward to 1999 and the pair were back at it battling for the checkered flag under the lights in front of a record crowd at Bristol Motor Speedway. This time, however, they were not the only players in the game.
While Labonte navigated through lapped traffic over the final 20 laps, Earnhardt worked to not only close ground on the leader but keep rookie Tony Stewart at bay behind him as they also got around the slower cars.
Earnhardt caught a break when the caution flew with less than 10 laps to go and Labonte spun as the field checked up and Darrell Waltrip got into the back of the No. 5 Chevrolet. That incident put the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet in the lead with only a handful of laps remaining – remember, this is the days before NASCAR overtime finishes.
Under the caution, Labonte came to pit road for four tires, while Earnhardt was told to stay on the track with the team telling him over the radio, ‘Dale, you are the seven-time champion. You can do it.’
Restarting with five laps to go, Earnhardt set his sights on victory but Labonte put those four fresh tires to work as he wasted no time, going from the fifth position to passing Earnhardt for the lead coming to the white flag.
As Labonte made the move past Earnhardt on the bottom of the track off Turn 2, Earnhardt made contact with him and sent the No. 5 spinning across the track and blanketing the exit of the corner in a cloud of smoke. Labonte’s car came back down the track, collecting Stewart and a handful of other cars.
With the chaos ensuing behind him, Earnhardt took the checkered flag to score his ninth win at Bristol Motor Speedway. As the RCR crew celebrated on pit road, the crowd of over 100,000 let out a mix of cheers and audible boos, as the reaction was mixed, to say the least.
“I couldn’t tell what happened from where I was standing, all I could see was (Labonte) spinning when he came around,” Childress told ESPN after the win. “I’m happy for the GM Goodwrench team. We needed a win, pulled it off and I’m tickled for Dale Earnhardt.”
When Earnhardt climbed from the car and stood on the roof of the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, the boos showered down even louder – something very rare for The Intimidator.
“We knew we didn’t get tires, and I didn’t know who got tires behind us. All I knew was I needed to protect that bottom. Terry got into me in the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4.
“I was going to get back to him and just rattle him – I wasn’t going to wreck him, but I got to him and I turned him around. I didn’t mean to really turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage, though,” said Earnhardt.
As the boos continued to rain down from the crowd, Earnhardt could not help but address them in his interview.
“This is a heck of a way to win,” he said. “I would have liked to beat Terry and race him back side-by-side. Like I said, I got into him a little bit to get by him and got him loose and spun him out. The Goodwrench team, Richard Childress, all of the guys, they all did a great job.
Ending the interview, Earnhardt reiterated, “I was going to try to shake him and get under him, I wasn’t going to try and wreck him.”
Understandably upset at what took place over the final 20 laps of the race, Labonte was not as receptive to Earnhardt’s comments.
“Well, I passed him down the front straightaway and he hit me in the corner down there in (Turns) 1 and 2, that’s about it.
“He never has any intention of taking anybody out, it just happens that way,” a disappointed Labonte told ESPN.
Those two nights, those two battles between future NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers racing for NASCAR Hall of Fame team owners, have gone down as some of the most exciting and memorable finishes in the sport’s history.
This year’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race marks 20 years since this iconic finish between Earnhardt and Labonte, one that will be discussed and remembered for years to come.