Earnhardt News
2000 Season

Earnhardt on display again at Bristol

(Mar. 23, 2000)
Crash, bang! What about an encore?

Terry Labonte doesn't dwell on the time Dale Earnhardt virtually stole a victory from him last August at Bristol Motor Speedway. And The Intimidator sounds downright sheepish when asked about it.

``I just wished we could have bumped and kept on racing,'' Earnhardt said quietly, remembering the decisive tap in the Goody's 500.

But Labonte didn't go on. Instead, he was parked on the backstretch after hitting the wall, an apparent win lost when Earnhardt pushed him out of the way and rolled into Victory Lane.

At the time, Labonte was angry. NASCAR talked to Earnhardt but decided it was simply Bristol being Bristol. The narrow, half-mile track with the highest banking in the sport, is to crash and bang what Daytona is to speed.

Many in a crowd of 140,000 booed the seven-time Winston Cup champion for hitting Labonte and racing on to the 73rd of his 75 career victories. It also wasn't a popular move with the TV audience.

But it was good for business. Bristol had no problem selling the additional 14,000 seats it put up for the Food City 500 on Sunday. And last year, Darlington Raceway, which staged the Southern 500 a week after the Bristol bang, quickly sold 6,000 tickets.

And millions returned to watch on TV.

``Love him or hate, people like it when Earnhardt's near the front,'' said Darlington president Jim Hunter.

But many would prefer that Earnhardt find another way to win.

After Labonte passed Earnhardt for the lead and the two were racing into the final lap last summer, the narrowness of the track made another pass all but impossible. So, as driver Bobby Hamilton put it, Earnhardt did the only thing he could. He went through Labonte.

Earnhardt won. Labonte, himself a two-time champion, wound up wrecked. But he gives no outward sign there will be a payback.

``I'm not a person who lets something like that bother me long,'' he said. ``You just go on about your business and hope to have a good run next time around.''

Earnhardt has come as close to a public apology as possible.

``At Daytona, Michael Waltrip got up under the 26 car and got into me and got me into the wall,'' he said. ``I knew essentially he didn't want that to happen.

``I got turned over at Talladega twice. Nobody meant to do it. Racing is going and doing. Things happen.''

With Earnhardt and Labonte they have happened more than once at Bristol.

In 1995, Labonte wrecked but won, sliding backward across the finish line after Earnhardt bumped him a few hundred feet from the end.

``It looked like something that needed to be hauled off to a salvage yard,'' Labonte said, recalling the scene in Victory Lane.

Also in that race five years ago, Earnhardt tangled with defending Food City 500 champion Rusty Wallace, who threw a plastic water bottle at ``Old Ironhead.''

Last September, in the aftermath of Earnhardt-Labonte II, the media descended on The Intimidator's hauler. As Earnhardt talked, Wallace climbed down a ladder from his nearby hauler and in a child's voice recited aloud, ``Dirty driver, dirty driver, dirty driver.''

Earnhardt says fans who booed him after the Bristol victory should ask themselves what they would have done.

``The point of the matter was I didn't give up after he passed me,'' Earnhardt said. ``I drove the car hard. Maybe I did more than I should have done.''

Earnhardt might not have made the same move earlier in the race.

``If you knock the nose, you can't get around all that good and it'll hurt you,'' the 48-year-old driver said.

But not for just one lap on a short track.

Associated Press

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