Which drivers intimidate now? Nobody's Earnhardt, but there are scary ones

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Terry Labonte was only three turns from the checkered flag as he made his final lap around Bristol Motor Speedway on a picture-perfect night in 1999. Unfortunately, the black No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt loomed in his rearview mirror like a dark cloud.


Before Labonte could get through the 36-degree banking of Turn 2, Earnhardt turned Labonte's car sideways and sent him spinning into the backstretch wall.

As he accepted the trophy in Victory Lane, Earnhardt said he didn't mean to wreck Labonte, that he only wanted to "rattle his cage." Labonte didn't buy that, responding, "He never has any intention of taking anybody out. It just happens that way."

Booo! Booo!

"That 3 was something you didn't want to see in your mirror because you knew something was fixing to happen," Labonte recalled this week. "Sometimes it didn't matter if it was for the lead or not."

Nobody struck fear into the hearts of fellow competitors the way Earnhardt did, thus his nickname "The Intimidator." Nobody currently in NASCAR's premier series, which is at Texas Motor Speedway on this Halloween Friday, comes close to being so scary.

"Nobody," said former driver Jimmy Spencer, now an analyst on the Speed Channel. "Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch … not even close.

"There was no more intimidating driver in the world than Earnhardt. He always sat real low in his car, had that open-face helmet, that mustache. Earnhardt was a son-of-a-bitch."

Busch, most agree, comes as close as any driver today to earning that tag. As legendary driver Buddy Baker said, "every once in a while the devil jumps out of Kyle Busch."

Johnson and Edwards, first and second in points with three races left in the Chase, also have proven to be great closers. People still are abuzz about Johnson's jump from 11th to second in the closing laps at Atlanta that expanded his advantage to 183 points last Sunday.

Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon also are highly respected for the way they finish off races.

But as far as scaring the driver in front of them, none comes close to Earnhardt.

"Some people would look in their rearview mirror and see the 3 car and they would freak," Baker said. "It was like the werewolf coming up behind you."

That 3 was something you didn't want to see in your mirror because you knew something was fixing to happen. Sometimes it didn't matter if it was for the lead or not.

-- Terry Labonte

Baker said the only driver that came close to Earnhardt was Cale Yarborough, whose three consecutive titles (1976-78) Johnson hopes to duplicate by the time the series concludes at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"Cale, he would run into the back of his mother's car to win a race," Baker said. "I was leading at Bristol going into the last corner. I heard something that sounded like an airplane coming through the infield. He had already gone off the racetrack, then came straight up and we hit and went up on top of the fence and went around and around.

"These guys today, I wouldn't be afraid to run against any of them."

Neither would three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now an analyst for Fox Sports. He wasn't scared of Earnhardt, either, but he respected him to the point that you "never wanted to see him in your mirror."

"The thing about Earnhardt, you'd catch him and he'd give you a hard time and you'd get past him and then you'd look back and go, 'Oh, crap! What did I do that for?' " Waltrip said. "Now he's worrying the snot out of you until he gets back around you."

Today's top bogeymen
Say you're leading Sunday's race at Texas with three laps remaining. You look in your rearview mirror and see somebody coming hard. Here's a look at the five drivers you should fear the most:

  • Kyle Busch: Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. about him. He had the lead with three laps remaining in the May race at Richmond when Busch sent him hard into the wall in Turn 3. Earnhardt was careful not to criticize, saying, "Kyle has his style of driving, but I would have been a little more … I don't know."

    Earnhardt was just as careful when talking about the way he wrecked Busch when the series returned to Richmond in September.

    "I wreck somebody [intentionally], I ain't going to leave him in good enough shape to come back and get me in the same race, so that wasn't my intention," he said as wryly as his old man would.

    Baker said nobody in the series today tops Busch as far as "absolutely not giving a hoot," which is a must to be an intimidator.

    "When he makes his move to the hole that he drives for, if you happen to be in it … [watch out]," Baker said. "But I admire that. That's what you're supposed to do. You're not supposed to run up there and chicken out."

  • Carl Edwards: The "slide" move he put on Johnson on the last lap at Kansas says all you need to know about him.

    For those that missed it, Edwards went low on the track and then blew straight up the track past Johnson for the lead as though he'd been shot from a cannon. Unfortunately, the momentum carried him into the wall and slowed him enough that Johnson was able to get back around for the victory.

    "I love what Carl did at Kansas City," Spencer said. "You never know what to expect out of him. He never surrenders."

    Said Baker, "Carl Edwards never gets tired. He would run 600 laps if he had to."

  • Jimmie Johnson: He doesn't do anything fancy or spectacular. He simply dissects his opponents, taking them apart like a surgeon.

    His second-place finish last weekend was as spectacular as almost any win. He pitted for four tires with 10 laps remaining, dropping him three spots to 11th.

    When the race resumed with eight laps to go he mowed past everybody but Edwards, passing Denny Hamlin on the final lap even though Hamlin got so loose he almost turned sideways.

    "At this point, Jimmie's the last guy I want to see in my mirror with a few laps to go," said Edwards, who hopes to duplicate consecutive wins at Atlanta and Texas as he did in 2005. "So that would be the No. 1 scary guy."

    Edwards added Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick to his list because they are closest to him in points.

    "At this point in the year, those are the scary guys you don't want to see in your mirror because you know that every position you get on those guys is going to be something good for you," he said.

    But none scare him as much as Johnson, who according to Baker may prove to be one of the best closers of all time.

    "When it comes down to 10 to go, he knows how to get the job done," Baker said. "This past weekend, that was pure dominance. As far as I'm concerned, that should be the best call of the year."

Honorable mention

  • Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon: They've combined for 114 wins and six championships -- Gordon four and Stewart two -- so they know what it takes to make the right move at the end.

    And unlike Busch, Edwards and Johnson, these two have proven to be great on all kinds of tracks.

But none of these drivers evokes fear the way Earnhardt did.

"The only reason that you get worried is if somebody is catching you and is going to pass you," Kasey Kahne said. "So if Kyle Busch was catching me, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon … yeah … if any of those guys are catching you, you're worried about getting beat and how you can go faster.

"As far as scared, I don't know if I've been scared in a while."

Scary for the wrong reasons
This kind of scared is a bit tricky. This is the kind of scared a driver feels when he's around a competitor that may do something stupid, ill-advised or become overly aggressive to the point he loses control and causes a wreck.

Drivers are wary of calling out these people for fear of insulting them.

"You know, we all make mistakes and do things that aren't good," Edwards said. "Talladega's a good example of a place where I was just worried about idiots, and I was one of them that day. So I don't have anything to say about somebody being scared."

Edwards was referring to the multi-car accident that took himself and Roush Fenway Racing teammates Biffle and Matt Kenseth not only out of the race but serious Chase contention.

But it's not just current drivers that are reluctant to call drivers out. Even ex-drivers are hesitant.

"I've still got to go to the track and talk to these guys, so I'll just say put me down with whatever the majority says," Waltrip said with a laugh.

Not everybody is so shy. Johnson didn't hesitate when asked what drivers he's most wary of.

"There are a bunch of them," he said with a laugh. "Typically, wrecked cars to start with, and then I think if you get around the No. 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.] or the No. 42 [Juan Pablo Montoya] or the No. 7 [Robby Gordon] at times can be a handful.

"I seem to be struggling with those guys from time to time. The No. 77 of late has been one of the toughest ones for me to pass, which I don't understand why. But I guess those three off the top of my head."

Ditto, said Kahne, adding the No. 28 of Travis Kvapil to the list.

"With those guys, you never know what's going to happen," he said. "They're just racing as hard as they can. Once in a while it worries you a little bit … which direction they're going to go."

Statistics support these concerns.

  • Juan Pablo Montoya: Nobody has failed to finish more races this season (seven) than the former Formula One star. He's been particularly accident-prone the past six races, crashing out in four. In 70 Cup races, he's crashed out 12 times.

  • Joe Nemechek: He's not commonly called out for being reckless, but Johnson would be best served staying away from him to preserve his lead. Nemechek has crashed out six times, all in the last 13 races, including the last two.

  • Dave Blaney: The driver of the No. 22 has had his share of misfortune, crashing out five times this year. He completed a rare triple earlier this year, crashing out in consecutive weekends at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol.

  • AJ Allmendinger: He's improved considerably after crashing out in the first two races, but still has four in 24 races.

  • Sam Hornish Jr.: It seems as though he has crashed more than four times, but that's what the records show.

  • Casey Mears: His name never comes up among drivers to be feared, but he's crashed out four times as well.

"There's a few of them I've noticed I wouldn't want to be around," said Labonte, who has driven a limited schedule this season. "But I don't want to mention any names. There are always guys around there like that."

But there was only one Earnhardt when it came to intimidation.

"I don't think there is anybody out there that is like him as far as that," Labonte said. "I heard somebody say one time they knew they were going to have to earn his respect. They just didn't know they were going to have to do it every single weekend."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.