“For every Hatfield, a McCoy.” What are sports, what is NASCAR without a good rivalry. One of NASCAR’s fiercest rivalries played out in the 1990s between two champions.
One was a cool, calculating customer they called the “Ice Man.” “Texas” Terry Labonte won championships in 1984 and 1996 with a steely demeanor reminiscent of another Texas sport icon, Tom Landry. Labonte would race you hard, but he was generally one to let his driving do the talking.
The other drove like Hell, because he feared Hell was catching up to him. Though Dale Earnhardt became NASCAR royalty- claiming seven NASCAR Winston Cup titles- he admitted a fear of losing his edge and losing his ride. The Man In Black masked that insecurity with swagger, mind games, and a fierce determination to win.
While the on track battles were epic, the truth was Labonte and Earnhardt liked to hunt and fish together. Like all trues competitors that went out the window at crunch time, playing out at Thunder Valley in two memorable night battles in 1995 and 1999. Was there a full moon those nights?
In 1995, (click here) Labonte was out front with ten laps to go, and a hard-charging Earnhardt about a second and a half behind. Lapped traffic slowed the elder Labonte brother’s getaway and gave Dale Sr. an opportunity to catch Terry’s rear bumper and give him a shot. Labonte says he stayed in the gas, and finished first sideways. For all the hard contact, Labonte was congenial about it all. Rick Hendrick couldn’t have been happy with what Earnhardt did to his ‘5’ car.
Four years later, Earnhardt found himself in front with the race winding down and heating up (watch here.) As you will see, Labonte gotto his bumper and caught the left rear corner. The two went side-by-side, then Earnhardt made contact. The post-race interview is there with pit reporter Jerry Punch. It was then the driver of the ‘3’ explained he didn’t mean to wreck his rival, but wanted to rattle his cage. Here you get to hear the quote the way it was really said. You also hear something Earnhardt didn’t hear a lot of in victory lane. Though Labonte was furious, he later said he felt sorry for Earnhardt, as he was booed with gusto by the Bristol crowd. In a video for Bristol Motor Speedway, reporter Claire B. Lang said that she and car owner Richard Childress were speechless as they heard the boos.
For some critics, this cemented their view of Dale Earnhardt as a dirty racer; that if he couldn’t win, he’d just spin you out. Yet others claim his faithful legion would give him a pass on it, while spewing venom at the likes of Jeff Gordon for doing similar to Rusty Wallace.
Whichever the case, all these years later, you can’t help but smile a bit. It’s hard to say where NASCAR’s “Golden Age” really was. Some say the 90s would have been such a time, with so many great rivalries and great talents going toe to toe. One thing’s for sure: these two races rate among the most memorable Bristol Motor Speedway has ever enjoyed.