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Earnhardt gets an unpopular victory
1999 News
Joe Macenka, AP Sports Writer

Bristol, Tenn. (Aug. 29, 1999)
In recent years, Dale Earnhardt has left some Winston Cup fans wondering if he has lost his competitive edge. On Saturday night, many of them questioned whether he had too much.

Earnhardt spun out leader Terry Labonte on the final lap, then went on to take the checkered flag in the Goody's 500 as many fans in a record Bristol Motor Speedway crowd of about 140,000 cascaded him with boos.

Earnhardt's response? Bring it on.

``I've got big shoulders,'' he said. ``I can take the blame or take the pressure or whatever.''

It was the 73rd career triumph for Earnhardt and it gave him his first multiple-victory season since 1996. But this one came at a price for the seven-time Winston Cup champion, a man whose souvenirs remain the hottest seller on stock car racing's premier circuit.

This time, the fans voiced a loud and clear opinion: The Intimidator went too far.

In Victory Lane, Earnhardt tried to explain his move, which came on the 36-degree banking of the second turn of the .533-mile oval. Earnhardt tapped Labonte from behind, sending him into a spin that eventually sent his car slamming into the backstretch wall.

Earnhardt slipped past, took the checkered flag, drove to Victory Lane and offered his side of the story as the fans almost drowned out his words with their derisive cheers.

``I didn't mean to turn him around,'' Earnhardt said, ``but I wanted to rattle his cage.''

Later, Earnhardt told reporters he wasn't sure whether he should apologize to Labonte. But Earnhardt insisted again that he wasn't trying to wreck him.

``I bumped him too hard and turned him loose,'' he said. ``I know he's upset. He has a right to be.''

Labonte was unimpressed.

``He never has any intention of taking anybody out,'' Labonte said. ``It just happens that way.''

NASCAR officials reviewed videotape of the collision from several angles and elected to let the race results stand.

``When you're trying to draw the line in regard to winning races, you need to have something more absolute than what we had,'' said Kevin Triplett, the sanctioning body's operations director.

Labonte said he considered complaining to NASCAR officials but elected against it.

``I wouldn't even waste my time to go down to the trailer and talk to them about it. I've been there before,'' Labonte said, adding that he would seek justice in his own fashion.

``He better tighten his belts up,'' Labonte said.

Jimmy Spencer charged through the smoke of Labonte's wreck to finish second. Ricky Rudd was third, followed by Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Stewart started on the pole and led 225 of the first 251 laps but came up short in a bid to become the first Winston Cup rookie to win a race since the late Davey Allison in 1987.

``I'm so mad now I could spit nails,'' said Stewart, who was running third and thought he had a chance to get the lead on the final lap but slowed when Earnhardt and Labonte collided.

Almost lost in the controversial finish was an uncharacteristic blunder by Winston Cup points leader Dale Jarrett.

He came to Bristol's concrete oval enjoying a 314-point lead over Mark Martin atop the 1999 driver standings. He left with a 38th-place finish that chopped his cushion to 213 points with 11 races remaining on the schedule.

Jarrett's string of 19 consecutive top-10 finishes -- three short of the modern-era Winston Cup record -- came to an end because of an early wreck he started. Jarrett lost control of his Ford coming out of the second turn and went into a wild spin that created a seven-car pileup, setting the stage for his early exit from the race.

Afterward, Jarrett acknowledged that the crash was due to operator error.

``I created all of it,'' he lamented. ``The car just got away from me.''

The wrecks involving Jarrett and Earnhardt were typical of the bumping and banging that Bristol's fast, narrow track has become known for producing. There were were 10 caution periods and countless other encounters that didn't produce yellow flags.

The final caution came out on lap 490 when Jeremy Mayfield spun out on the backstretch and Darrell Waltrip, trying to get back on the lead lap, tapped the leading car of Labonte from behind as the two raced to the checkered flag.

Labonte spun out in the fourth turn and dropped to sixth while he pitted under caution to get four fresh tires for the sprint to the finish.

When the race went back to green with four laps left, Labonte roared through the field, overtaking Earnhardt as the two took the white flag to start the final lap.

A few hundred yards later, Labonte surrendered the lead again in the decisive pass. He wound up eighth, one lap down.

``We got spun, came back, took the lead, then got spun again,'' he lamented. ``Guess it just wasn't our night.''

The wreck that changed the complexion of the 1999 title chase occurred when Jarrett, fighting an ill-handling car, slid out of the second turn on lap 77. His Ford fishtailed the entire way down the backstretch and slid up into the 36-degree banking of the third turn, where he was T-boned in the right side by Bill Elliott while five other cars crashed behind them.

Jarrett managed to stay on the end of the lead lap, but the significant right-side damage was clearly affecting the handling of his car. Fourteen laps after the race went back to green, matters got worse for Jarrett when he was banged from behind by Jerry Nadeau, careened down the front stretch and slammed into the concrete retaining wall near the end of pit road.

Nadeau was assessed a two-lap punishment for rough driving. For Jarrett, the penalty was harsher. He went behind the wall for repairs, and by the time he returned on lap 253 in a car that looked like it was held together mainly with several rolls of duct tape, he was 155 laps down and in 40th place.