Earnhardt News
2000 Season

Earnhardt has knack for finding center stage
David Poole

BRISTOL, Tenn. (Mar. 24, 2000)
Some athletes have it, some don't.

Michael Jordan always seemed to take - and hit - the big shot. John Elway was known for his fourth-quarter heroics. When Tiger Woods isn't storming back from five down on the final nine holes, he's shattering records in a way that seems impossible to continue.

Winston Cup racing's version of this phenomenon is, of course, Dale Earnhardt, who returns this week to the site of one of the most memorable and controversial victories of the 75 in his career.

Last year's Goody's 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was an instant classic, thanks to a frantic finish featuring Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, a half-dozen other race cars and nearly 150,000 charged-up race fans.

"I stir up controversy, don't I?{quot} Earnhardt said when asked about his penchant for being right in the middle of some of the sport's most talked-about moments. {quot}I don't know if I search it out or what."

Earnhardt was searching for his first victory at a non-restrictor plate track since 1996 on Aug. 28 when he sliced his way through the field from the 26th starting spot - and a backstretch pit stall - to battle Labonte for the victory over the final half of Bristol's night-time race.

Tony Stewart had dominated the first half of the race, leading 225 of the first 251 laps, but after Jeff Gordon led from 252 to 299 Labonte and Earnhardt took over. Nobody else led after Labonte took the top spot on Lap 300.

Labonte passed Earnhardt to take the lead on Lap 439 and appeared to be on his way to winning for the second time in the 1999 season. But as the cars slowed for a yellow flag on Lap 490, Labonte spun in Turn 4 after getting hit from behind by Darrell Waltrip.

Labonte went into the pits while Earnhardt took the lead, and when the race went green again only five laps remained. Labonte came back out in fifth place but had new tires and quickly moved into second. At the white flag, he had surged past Earnhardt to regain the lead.

But the drama was just beginning. Earnhardt drove hard into turns 1 and 2 trying to catch up, and as he came out of Turn 2 his Chevrolet hit Labonte's in the rear. Labonte spun and crashed into the inside wall, collecting several other cars in the process.

Earnhardt, however, slipped through and raced back around to take the checkered flag and set off the 1999 season's biggest controversy. As the black No. 3 went to Victory Lane, the crowd was on its feel. Some were cheering wildly, but more were booing lustily.

"I didn't mean to wreck him," Earnhardt said, beginning one of the season's most memorable quotes. "I was just trying to rattle his cage."

Earnhardt and Labonte are both a little weary of rehashing what happened at Bristol last fall.

"It was a good race," Earnhardt said. "To come to what it did and him not finish second was the only thing I hated about the whole deal and I thought back about. I wish he hadn't wrecked. I wish it would have been a deal where we bumped and I got by him and raced on."

On that night last August, Labonte waved off Earnhardt's explanation that he didn't mean to cause a wreck. These days, in typical Terry Labonte fashion, he's ready to move on.

"There's really nothing you can do about it," Labonte said. "I wish it wouldn't have happened. I know Dale wishes it wouldn't have happened, but it did.

"You've just got to go on about your business. I'm not a person that lets something like that bother me long. I'd be pretty miserable if I was, so you just go on about your business and hope you have a good run there."

Labonte wound up eighth in the Goody's 500 last year, but his team never seemed to recover from the disappointment. The No. 5 Chevrolet finished no better than 14th in any of the 11 races that followed last season.

Labonte does have three top-15 finishes in this year's first five races, and the next two races are at Bristol, where many think he should have won, and Texas, where he did win last year.

"We've got a good team, and Bristol is a good race track for us," Labonte said. "We're going to go up there and we're going to do our best to have a good run and hope we can do that and do as good as we did last time there. We're going to take the same car back. It's got a 2000 body on it. We hope we can have that right combination again and have a shot there."

Last August's outcome seemed to have the opposite effect on Earnhardt. He had six top-10 finishes in the 11 races after Bristol, including his third win of the 1999 season in October at Talladega.

This year, Earnhardt has finished second, eighth, first and third in his past four races and is third in the early season points race. His victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway came, in typical Earnhardt style, by about 2 feet in a thrilling last-lap duel with another Labonte, Terry's brother Bobby.

"It has been a good start," said Earnhardt, who said he needs to keep running in the top five and challenging for victories if he wants to add a record eighth Winston Cup title to his career resume.

"They keep moving the mark," he said when asked what kind of consistency it takes to run for a title. "Now it's top fives and wins. A top 10 may keep you competitive, but it's not going to win you the championship I don't think. You've got to be there."

And given his history, the more Earnhardt is there, the more excitement race fans can anticipate as the 2000 season progresses.


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