Race 8: Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Bristol - August 28, 1999
In order to tell about my observations of the race, I cannot help talking about what preceded it. I had recently obtained my driver’s permit that year and drove with my Dad in my war-torn 1988 Toyota Camry that evening to run some errands in order to gain practice. I ended up getting much more than I bargained for. As I was driving through the suburbs roughly three miles away from home, the car slowed when I started to push the gas after stopping at a stop sign. The car continued to slow before it ground to a halt just a few yards from the intersection. Needless to say, it would not restart. After calling AAA and waiting for more than an hour for their truck to arrive, my Dad walked to a nearby gas station to call my Mom at home. A little while later, my Mom picked me up and my Dad waited for the tow truck, which arrived soon after. I arrived at home about a half an hour before my Dad did, having dropped off the derelict Camry. To this day, I do not know what caused my car to break down. Soon after, we watched the race with Miles in the family room; the same room in which Miles and I saw the same event four years prior. This would prove to be only the first coincidence that night would bring.
The first thing we noticed when watching the race was that championship points leader Dale Jarrett’s car was severely damaged as a result of an early crash, very uncharacteristic of the cautious driver. This damage was quickly made worse by a second spin into the inside wall when Jerry Nadeau, substituting for a retiring Ernie Irvan in his Pontiac, ran into the rear of Jarrett’s Ford. I was very frustrated with this incident, not that Jarrett was losing valuable points in his championship battle, but that Nadeau was penalized for aggressive driving. The race wore on, creating the usual amount of havoc that eliminated many from contention due to several accidents, which put two drivers at the front of the pack late in the race: Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt.
Labonte was leading the race by a fair margin over Earnhardt with less than 100 laps to go in the 500 lap event. Quickly, the ESPN announcers reporting the event noticed this coincidence by showing a clip of the wild 1995 finish they had broadcasted back then. The present event did look eerily similar: Earnhardt was still driving the black Goodwrench sponsored number three car while Labonte was still behind the wheel of the yellow Kellogg’s-backed number five. The race seemed to go green for quite some time until eleven laps to go when Terry Labonte’s younger brother, Bobby, blew his Pontiac’s engine in a huge puff of smoke as he slowly drove along the inside of the track. And that’s when things went crazy. Just one lap later, Jeremy Mayfield’s Ford spun and slammed into the inside wall on the backstretch. Right when the caution flag came out, Terry Labonte was tapped by Darrell Waltrip and spun in the fourth turn, giving Earnhardt the lead. The announcers were speechless!
At this point, I immediately wrote Labonte off as a possible winner. There seemed to be several cars on the lead lap and Labonte had to pit in order to replace all four of his blistered tires. Little did I know that there were only eight cars on the lead lap and five of them pitted, including Labonte. Two of the cars that pitted under this caution were Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd, who both hoped new tires would give them a better finish. Labonte’s frustration was evident when he violently spun his tires in a huge puff of smoke while rushing back to the track, beating the other four off pit road. Earnhardt decided not to change his worn tires due to the fact that his twenty-sixth place starting position gave him a pit stall on the backstretch, a notorious disadvantage of qualifying outside the top twenty-five. As the field sorted itself out in single-file, only three cars separated a fuming Labonte from Dale Earnhardt.
On lap 496, the race was on. The next time by, Labonte made no secret of his strategy by flying past Mark Martin for fourth in turn one. Just before that lap was completed, Labonte shot past Jeff Gordon for third. The Kellogg’s car quickly ate up a two car length advantage Tony Stewart had built up in second, passing his Pontiac in turn three with just two circuits to go. It was not until this point that I began to reconsider Labonte’s odds of winning! By the time lap 499 had begun, Labonte was behind Earnhardt by just a matter of feet. In turn three, Labonte cut down low in hopes of making the winning pass, then slid into the black number three as they hauled down the frontstretch for the white flag side-by-side. Labonte edged past Earnhardt into turn one, but then slid up the track slightly, causing Earnhardt to tap the Kellogg’s car in the rear, suddenly sending Labonte into a spin that caused his car to face the charging field in the wrong direction.
Earnhardt eased by on the inside, closely followed by an equally fortunate Jimmy Spencer. Rudd, having worked his way past Stewart for third, chose the outside line when Labonte’s car emerged from the smoke, running head-on into the Kellogg’s car just as Stewart hit Rudd’s rear. Just as both Rudd and Stewart’s damaged cars limped past, Mark Martin slammed into the side of Labonte’s car as it slid backwards into the inside wall just before Sterling Marlin whacked Martin’s rear bumper. The nearby car of Jeff Gordon barely cleared the wrecks on the outside at this point, passing not only Marlin and Martin, but Stewart as well before receiving the checkered flag in fourth. Just moments earlier, Earnhardt took the win, being rear-ended by an out of control Spencer in turn one. Both the crowd at the track and our group at the house were amazed.
I believe that "That was cool!" was my first response to the on-track action. Though a high amount of fans were disgusted with what they called Earnhardt’s "unsportsmanlike conduct," my opinion was that Earnhardt was unable to slow down in time to avoid the collision. Miles and I were pleased to see that the passion for winning Earnhardt harbored, a characteristic Miles particularly enjoyed, was still evident on the track even as equal portions of the Bristol crowd cheered and booed when Earnhardt climbed out of his car in victory lane.