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Irate feelings still linger over Dale Earnhardt's Bristol bumping
'99 News
Bill Fleischman, Philadelphia Daily News

Philadelphia, Penn. (Aug. 30, 1999)
Five days later, and racing fans are still talking about Dale Earnhardt's bullying, out-of-my-way, bump-and-win maneuver at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Critics want the seven-time Winston Cup champion fined, suspended and possibly exiled to Indy-car racing.

His fans are hoisting a brew or two and saying, ``Hey, that's the way real racing is supposed to be.''

A refresher: On the final lap of the Goody's 500 on Saturday night, Earnhardt gave Terry Labonte, the leader, a sheet-metal kiss, sending his car into a spin. Earnhardt went on to win his second race of the year and 73rd of his career. Labonte finished eighth.

Afterward, over the thunderous boos of many in the 130,000-plus crowd, Earnhardt said he wasn't trying to wreck Labonte, just ``rattle his cage.''

NASCAR officials huddled, watched the tapes over and over, then ruled Earnhardt's victory would stand. Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer, said it couldn't be determined Earnhardt was attempting to wreck Labonte.

If Earnhardt had done that earlier in the race on the half-mile Bristol track, perhaps NASCAR would have penalized him a lap. NASCAR reacts as NHL referees do in the final minutes of close games: No penalties are whistled unless there is a clear intent to maim.

One reason there is such divided reaction to Earnhardt's aggressive tactics is that we seldom see racing like that anymore. Too much Winston Cup racing is on ``boulevards,'' as track owner Bruton Smith calls some of the new wide race tracks.

Earnhardt is one of the few drivers these days who would dare try such a maneuver and complete it without wrecking half the cars in the race. In NASCAR's formative years, such hell-for-leather drivers such as Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts frequently did what Earnhardt did to Labonte.

What Earnhardt did makes him unpopular with other drivers and many fans. However, Earnhardt doesn't care what his competitors and critics think of him.

A somewhat contrite Earnhardt did say on a popular Charlotte, N.C., radio show on Monday morning, ``It's still not right to wreck someone to win a race.''

Face it: When Earnhardt is racing for the lead, fans can't take their eyes off the black No. 3 Chevrolet.

Said veteran driver Ricky Rudd: ``There are certain guys you race with who will race you clean. The guy that spun Terry is not one of those guys. You've got to think of that when you've got to pass him.''

Looking ahead to Sunday's Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington, Labonte suggested Earnhardt ``better tighten his seat belts.''

Added driver Sterling Marlin: ``If they get together again, I'd say Earnhardt's got him a neck-stretching coming.''

Darlington, NASCAR's original superspeedway, offers the same kind of tight setup as Bristol. Called ``The Track Too Tough to Tame,'' it's the perfect place for an Earnhardt-Labonte rematch.