The most important Bristol race ever:
The 1999 Goody’s Headache Powder 500
Photo by NASCAR Media Group
Fans watch a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
It was the night the term “It’s Bristol, Baby!” was created. August 28, 1999.
The NASCAR Winston Cup Series was in the midst of another successful season. Second generation driver, and fan favorite Dale Jarrett was in the middle of a championship run, having a firm grip over Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte, who won at Michigan the previous week. Seven time series champion, Dale Earnhardt was having a rough go of the 1999 season, sitting 7th in points with only having one win at the time. He qualified 26th, and had to pit on the backstretch. It didn’t seem like his luck was going to change at Bristol that night.
Earnhardt had just come off a strong run at Michigan where he led 27 of the race’s 200 laps, and had a strong car before falling off at the end. Bobby Labonte was able to sneak on past he, and Dale’s arch nemesis, Jeff Gordon for the victory in what was one of the most exciting Michigan finishes ever. Also in that race, was the debut of the number 17 DeWalt Ford for Roush Racing, and young driver Matt Kenseth; who was going to run for rookie of the year in the year 2000.
It was at that race in Michigan NASCAR and fans were forced to say goodbye to Ernie Irvan, who was injured in a practice crash for the Busch Series race and was forced to officially retire from the sport.
Photo by NASCAR Media Group
Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Burton
In his car at Bristol was young, Jerry Nadeau who had just vacated Melling Racing to join the 36 team, he qualified eighth, and was hoping to spoil the fun of the big guns, and get his first Winston Cup win.
The year 1999 was filled with all sorts of exciting storylines. The sport was thriving. Jeff Burton had won at Darlington after bouncing his car off the wall and the rains came to call the race premature and crown Burton the winner.
It was a much different time for NASCAR. Older drivers were still battling to keep their names relevant in the sport. Younger drivers were battling to make a name for themselves. One of those young drivers was rookie, Tony Stewart, who was having a strong rookie season in 1999, being fifth in points, but still had yet to find victory lane, would tonight be the night for the hot shot rookie Stewart? Even Martin Scorsese couldn’t write the Hollywood script that was about to be played out at “The World’s Fastest Half Mile.”
ESPN started out the telecast with Molly Hatchet's “Flirtin’ with Disaster” and it was fitting, as 140,000 plus turned out to Bristol, a packed house, and not a seat to be had. It’s almost as if they knew what was coming. That young rookie, Tony Stewart was on the pole and had a hot rod all weekend, and nearly won the spring race. On his outside, Mister Bristol himself, Rusty Wallace who had seven Bristol wins previously. It wasn’t going to be easy for Tony to get his first career win.
Championship leader Dale Jarrett was concerned about Bristol. Back then, Bristol was a lot like a restrictor plate track is now. Anything can happen, and there could be a lot of points shuffling if you had a bad day. You could get caught up in someone else’s mess. A 25th place starting position had Dale pitting on the back stretch as qualifiers 22-43 did in Bristol, which was a death sentence. All Jarrett wanted to do was get through Bristol unscathed, which is easier said than done, especially with a starving Dale Earnhardt starting on your outside.
Starting in the 14th position was 3-time series Champion Darrell Waltrip. He was in a downward spiral in 1999, and had failed to qualify for the previous race in Michigan and was hoping that a run in Bristol, a place where he won at twelve times, would put him back into the Promise Land in NASCAR, on the backside of his career.
The race started with an early caution, as Robert Pressley got into the wall.
After that, 68 green flag laps before the series points’ leader had some trouble of his own.
Dale Jarrett spun on his own and got slammed into by Bill Elliott. His chance to win was over really quick. And his hope to get through Bristol didn’t come true. But it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and Dale didn’t lose a lap initially. But his problems were just beginning.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images
Terry Labonte in 2006.
At lap 105 Jerry Nadeau was battling to stay on the lead lap and spun Dale Jarrett. Nadeau was parked for two laps for the altercation, ruining his shot at an upset victory. Jarrett’s rear end housing was broke in the incident and he ended up finishing a measly 38th place.
Early on Tony Stewart was dominating. He led 225 laps and looked poised enough to win his first career NASCAR race. But the handling went away on the Home Depot Pontiac, and Tony ended up fifth. Good, but he was still extremely disappointed at the missed opportunity.
The lead was taken over by Terry Labonte on lap 300. Terry, who was a closer much like Kevin Harvick, and a veteran who knew to keep his car out of trouble, and charge hard when it mattered most. Terry was known as the “Ice Man” for his cool demeanor under pressure, which served him well at a track like Bristol, where tempers could rage at any given second.
Throughout the battle of Terry, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart; Dale Earnhardt drove all the way up through the field. He had a car that he really liked that he used in the spring race, and before long, Dale was contending for the lead with Terry.
In usual Terry Labonte form, the veteran wouldn’t go down without a fight. The two handed the lead back and forth, with Terry only surrendering it to Dale for a short time before Terry took the lead again on lap 439, in what felt like would be the last time.
But NASCAR fans had felt like they’ve seen this same song and dance before. And that’s because they had. In 1995, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt had a hard fought battle for the win. Terry was in the lead off the final corner and got tapped by Dale, sending Terry’s car sideways across the start/finish line, and into the outside wall. He won the race, and drove the battered number 5 Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Chevy to victory lane.
Fans wondered if they would see something similar to that finish, and if Dale got around Terry, would Terry repay Dale the favor from 4 years earlier. But for the moment, no one was touching Labonte as the night went on. He led for 51 consecutive laps, and during that run, it seemed Terry was well on his way to victory.
Suddenly haywire! Bobby Labonte blows up, Jeremy Mayfield ends up in the inside wall, and leader Terry Labonte ends up spun out against the wall. He didn’t hit anything.
Darrell Waltrip, who was having one of his strongest runs of the season, got into to Terry, sending him sideways up the track. There was some oil on the track too from Bobby’s car, and Terry needed to pit for flat spotting the tires, and possible oil on his tires. He was at the tail end of the lead lap anyway, and pitting was no loss at that point, so the 5 team decided to come down pit road.
Earnhardt now had the lead, and the rookie, Tony Stewart was second. Terry Labonte was sixth after the spin, and came into the pits to get 4 fresh Goodyears. The normally mild mannered Labonte was furious on the radio, and burned out coming out of the pits.
Dale was petitioning with his team to also come down and get 4 tires. But the 3 team convinced Earnhardt to stay out, and keep the lead noting that he could get the job done from the lead… He was Dale Earnhardt after all.
After the pit stops, Terry restarted 5th. Earnhardt, Stewart, Gordon, Martin and Labonte (all future NASCAR Hall of Famers) were the top five as the green flag flew in the air, there were five laps to go.
Terry drove like a man with a woman in labor in the passenger seat. His fresh tires had him around Martin, Gordon and Stewart in due time. All that was left was to get around Earnhardt, the seven time series champ.
Earnhardt threw a block on Terry. Terry drove even lower in the corner and made slight contact with Dale’s car. Dale slid up the racetrack and Terry drove underneath him. Labonte was back in the lead with 4 fresh tires, and once again, seemed untouchable. Terry had finally repaid the favor from four years earlier.
White flag was in the air, and Dale Earnhardt was giving it everything that he had to win.
They dove into turn one, and in the middle of turn one, to use an overused term, “the shot heard ‘round the world.”
Dale Earnhardt, in classic Earnhardt fashion, came up the race track and spun Terry Labonte completely around in turn 2. He collected Stewart, Ricky Rudd and others in the wreck. Earnhardt drove on to victory and a hard charging Jimmy Spencer finished second.
It was a move we had seen before from Earnhardt. Whether it was Darrell Waltrip, or Rusty Wallace, or even Bill Elliott, it wasn’t a surprising move. The problem was, it was Terry Labonte.
Terry was a driver who raced with more class than anyone. A driver who constantly took the high road. A driver who fans always said “never did nothin’ to nobody.” Everyone’s second favorite driver. Terry Labonte of all people got his cage rattled this time, and NASCAR was in a predicament of whether or not they would let the finish stand.
It was just 8 years earlier in 1991 when that same number 5 team with Ricky Rudd at the helm, had a win taken away from them at Sears Point for a similar incident. This night, the 5 team was hoping for that same ruling from NASCAR.
Earnhardt’s car rolled into victory lane, as the finish was still in limbo, and NASCAR wasn’t sure whether they would let it stand. Dale climbed out of his car in victory lane, and the shower of boos from the race fans in Bristol Motor Speedway, even took back the strong willed Earnhardt who usually embraced the hate. There was no question, the fans weren’t happy with that move. It was clear that Terry Labonte had given Dale a passing lane in turn 2, and instead of taking it, he chose to dump Terry.
The victory lane interview didn’t help much either. Dale seemed pleased with himself for the win, and the move. He even went on to note in the interview that he didn’t know who pitted and who didn’t, only to refer to Labonte’s fresh tires two questions later, and of course the standard line of “I didn’t mean to wreck him, just to rattle his cage,” and also he referred to wanting to beat Terry fair and square and not wreck him next time. He had that chance, and the fans knew it. As Dale was doing his interview with TV, the track officially announced Dale was the winner. The fans showered the announcements with boos that stopped Dale in his interview with Jerry Punch. It was an unusual victory lane celebration for Earnhardt.
Terry wasn’t happy himself. He climbed out of his car, and walked across the track, his face redder than the logo on his Kellogg’s fire suit. But in the TV interview a now showered and much more settled Labonte, seemed to be more frustrated with Darrell Waltrip than Dale Earnhardt. Whether he won or lost, Terry Labonte never showed much emotion. He clearly wasn’t happy with the move, but knew it was over, done with, and time to move on to Darlington. He finished 8th.
Jimmy Spencer on the other hand was doing everything in his power to get the win revoked. Jimmy finished second and would have been the beneficiary if the win was taken from Dale. He was unsuccessful.
Tony Stewart was steaming mad too. He thought he had something for Earnhardt, and the wreck did him in. Tony ended up fifth, but took his shot to win away from him. Trust me, the kid has a bright future ahead of him.
I think ESPN commentator Bob Jenkins said it best. “There will be talk about this one for a long time.” He was certainly right on the money. This race still gets under the skin of Terry Labonte fans to this day. They go from the calm and cool demeaned race fan of a retired champion, to a raging lunatic at the thought of this night.
Ricky Rudd summed it up perfectly as well in his post-race interview, “Clearly Earnhardt took Terry out…. call it what you want to, it was close racing...”
This race had so many big names in it. The old guys, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd, and the young guys, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. It was a passing of the baton of sorts. It gave the old school fans something to cheer for. It gave the new school fans something to root for as well.
Dale Jarrett’s point lead took a major hit, but he still ended up winning the 1999 Winston Cup championship.
Bristol Motor Speedway turned into a must watch show after this night. There were over 140,000 fans in the seats at Bristol at that time, and all of them certainly put in to renew their seats for the year 2000. Bristol added even more seats in the coming years, and was a hot attraction on the NASCAR tour before the reconfiguration.
This race helped carry NASCAR into the new millennium. It was in 2001 that NASCAR moved to FOX and NBC to be on network television for the first time, and certainly this race was one of the ones that helped sell the sport to those networks. It’s an all-time classic, and one that as long as I live, even if I’ve forgotten my own name, I’ll never forget the 1999 Goody’s Headache Powder 500. It was an all-time great, and the most important race in the history of Bristol Motor Speedway. It was “Bristol Baby!”