Dale Earnhardt Sr and Terry Labonte in pit road before 1998 race at Bristol Motor Speedway
George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte: The Heated Rivalry That Ended With a Bang at Bristol


Advertisement

Dale Earnhardt Sr. wasn't nicknamed "The Intimidator" because he made friends out on the racetrack. During his storied NASCAR career, Earnhardt had intense rivalries with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd, and Geoff Bodine. And, if you watched the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in April, you were reminded of another one of Earnhardt's major rivals.

As boos rained down while Kyle Busch celebrated his win at the 2022 Food City Dirt Race, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver told Jamie Little, "Man, I feel like Dale Earnhardt Sr. right now." With his cheeky comment, Busch turned the NASCAR history book pages back to 1999, when Dale Sr. bumped Terry Labonte on the final lap of the Bristol Cup race to secure the victory. Despite being a fan favorite, Earnhardt was not received warmly for his late-race stunt.

Senior claimed that he never meant to spin Labonte. Certain NASCAR fans choose to believe that, but others don't buy the story. Regardless if the move purposeful or not, it's a major part of Earnhardt's legacy. And, to really understand the whole story, we need to go a couple years back to 1995.

Advertisement

The 1995 Bristol Race

So, here's where it all started. Round One of the Labonte vs. Earnhardt rivalry, if you will.

During the 1995 race at Bristol, Terry managed to squeeze into first place on lap 432. Dale Sr., who was sent to the back of the pack for spinning Rusty Wallace on lap 32, did everything he could to make his way back to the front. Amazingly, as the racers came up to the white flag indicating that there was just one lap to go, Earnhardt charged his way up towards the leaders. He managed to pass lapped drivers and, eventually, ended up right on Labonte's rear bumper. Labonte had nowhere to go as he stuck to the inside lane and got stuck behind the lapped racers. Earnhardt charged hard in an attempt to overtake him and tried to squeeze into the far inside lane.

As they turned the last corner, Earnhardt didn't have enough room to make the move to the outside and made contact with Labonte's bumper, sending him crashing into the wall as they crossed the finish line. Luckily for Labonte, he wasn't hurt, and he still managed to see that checkered flag and take home the win in his No. 5 Chevy. But, Earnhardt had his number and would see the tables turn in dramatic fashion a few years later.

Advertisement

Dale Earnhardt's Controversial '99 Win

Now, we get to the really good stuff. During the '99 Bristol race, Labonte made his way into first position, where he claims that his brother Bobby blew his engine and spilled some oil on the track. As the caution came out, Labonte slowed his race car and decided not to pass the lapped racers on the track. Well, Darrell Waltrip was right behind him and came in a little too hot, hitting the rear bumper of Labonte's race car just enough to spin him out.

After some hard racing, he made his way back to the front of the pack. Again, as the white flag came out, it was The Intimidator versus Labonte. With some aggressive driving, Terry managed to sneak to the inside of Dale, as the two went side-by-side around the turn, trading some paint in the process. The crowd roared as Terry got around Earnhardt's Goodwrench Chevrolet to take the lead. Just moments later, Earnhardt positioned himself right behind Labonte and hit his rear bumper, causing him to spin out. Earnhardt continued past the wreckage to win the race that night.

Obviously frustrated, Labonte would go on to explain that he had wanted to T-bone Earnhardt's race car when he came back around the track. He sat on the back straightaway and waited, then threw his car into gear, gave it some gas, and dropped the clutch to go for the pit maneuver. Well, the car broke its reverse gear when he did that, so the car only moved about half an inch. Not the retaliation he was hoping for. Although Labonte didn't get his frustration out by spinning Earnhardt back, he says he calmed down after the car broke. He came to conclusion that it was better that the gear broke, because it could have been turned into a much worse situation. True, but it probably would've made for one incredible highlight.

Advertisement

As Earnhardt entered Victory Lane, the crowd erupted in a mixture of cheers and boos. The boos were undoubtedly noticeable (as Kyle Busch indicated back in April), so it really showed how many people disagreed with the race's outcome. Even still, it didn't really affect how NASCAR fans viewed Earnhardt as a whole. He was still NASCAR's GOAT, then and now. It just goes to show that even beloved drivers aren't immune to booing every now and then.

MORE: Country Music Immortalized Dale Earnhardt, Allowing His Son a Special Connection

Related Videos