NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte Recalls Thrilling Duels With Earnhardt At Bristol
Terry Labonte's duels with Dale Earnhardt at the Bristol Motor Speedway night race are the stuff of legend, and provided some of the biggest moments in the history of the race.
Serving as a guest of Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Hall of Fame driver talked about those memorable matchups with Earnhardt during appearances at the Bristol Club, Bristol Tap Room and Chairman's Experience before Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.
Labonte's first success at Bristol came early in his career and also had a dose of history with it, as his victory in 1984 ended Darrell Waltrip's string of seven straight wins at the track. Though not remembered as well as their duels in the 90s, it also marked Labonte's first Bristol dust-up with Earnhardt.
"A lot of people don't remember this, but in 1984 I won the race here and he spun me out that night, too," Labonte said. "I was passing him for the lead down the front straightaway and he hooked me in the right rear and spun me out, and I slid in the front straightaway and stopped in turn one. (But) came back and won the race."
He added his second Bristol victory at the historic 1995 race, winning despite an aggressive hit from Earnhardt right out of Turn 4. It's a highlight shown often, especially during race week, and it remains one of the most memorable moments in Bristol history. Nearly 25 years later, Labonte easily recalled the tense closing moments of the thrilling race.
"It was a long green-flag run," Labonte said. "Dale had newer tires than I did and he was catching me, and I was catching some lap traffic and they were racing for position. I caught them on the last lap and they kind of held me up a little bit, and Dale caught me and he hit me coming off of (turn 4), and I thought, 'Oh, God, okay.' I just stood on the gas, gotta make it to the finish line. I don't know what's going to happen after that, but I'm going to get there first and I did.
"Then I hit the wall and knocked the front end off, but we won and drove to victory lane. It was cool, man, smoke coming out and everything. I thought, 'Man, this is awesome,' standing there in victory lane and all of a sudden it was hard to stand there because there was oil all over the ground."
The final duel came just four years later in 1999, again serving as a must-see highlight in Bristol and NASCAR history.
This time, Earnhardt made his move a little earlier, bumping Labonte in Turn 2 en route to the victory. Sitting on the back straightaway, Labonte plotted his revenge, but his car didn't cooperate.
"My car was sitting there wrecked on the back straightaway tore all to pieces, and he's coming around the corner and I thought, 'Alright, alright,' so I fired it back up and I thought to myself, 'That No. 3 is gonna go to victory lane, but this No. 5 is gonna be stuck in the side of him,'" Labonte said. "I had it running and timed perfect, and I popped the clutch and I gave it the gas and it moved about a quarter-inch. It tore reverse gear out."
The memorable matchups are forever part of Bristol lore, providing key moments in night race history for both fans and current drivers. Those are also times Labonte will never forget, in part because of his strong affection for Bristol.
"Bristol was always one of my favorite tracks," Labonte said. "What a great track. I still like watching it here and it's always been one of my favorite tracks. I think I ran pretty good the first time I came here. I always liked it, adapted to it well."