20 Years Ago: Labonte Adds the Finishing Touch
Twenty years ago Bobby Labonte ushered in the 21st century with a racing season that most drivers only experience in their dreams.
In 2000, Labonte completed a phenomenal 99.9 percent of the laps that comprised the 34-race NASCAR Cup Series schedule and led 465 of them. He finished every event, one of only two drivers to accomplish that feat. And the Corpus Christi, Texas, native added four victories, three poles, 19 top-five results and 24 top-10 finishes to his racing résumé.
However, it was Labonte’s 16th-career victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the track’s 500-mile Bank of America fall race that virtually guaranteed the then 36-year-old driver that year’s Cup Series championship. His 1.166-second victory over Jeremy Mayfield extended his lead in the driver standings to 252 points with five races remaining. With that almost insurmountable lead, Labonte needed only to finish ninth or better in each remaining event to corral the title.
“It gave us some breathing room,” Labonte said about the point lead he amassed with his Charlotte victory.
“You don’t want to tell anybody that you’re going to throttle back and just make sure you’re going to finish races and not take chances. I always said at the time, ‘You never know. You’ve just got to keep going and not worry about the points.’ Everybody says not to worry about the points, right? But in my mind, without telling anybody, it definitely gave us some breathing room.
“We definitely knew that we had an upper hand … but at the same time you didn’t want to get too complacent. We knew that if we didn’t have bad luck five races in a row we should be good, but we still didn’t jump up and down for joy until it was over with.”
Labonte’s Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac was strong throughout the Charlotte race, leading 12 times for 37 laps, including the final seven. However, it was veteran crew chief Jimmy Makar’s pit strategy that provided Labonte with the edge he needed. During the race’s last caution period, Makar elected to give Labonte four fresh tires, while crew chief Peter Sospenzo decided to provide Mayfield with only right-side tires for the final 27 laps. When the race restarted, Mayfield was leading and Labonte was eighth. Labonte blasted through the field and with a dozen laps remaining he passed Mark Martin for second.
At that time, Mayfield possessed a 1.128-second advantage over Labonte. The JGR driver easily ran down Mayfield and raced side-by-side with him for nearly a lap before completing the pass and pulling away.
“We were able to pass cars, which, obviously, in today’s world it’s hard to do,” Labonte said. “That’s one thing that really sticks out.”
But so does the fact that Labonte possessed a fast race car throughout the 334-lap event.
“We could lead,” he continued. “We didn’t lead a whole lot of laps, but we led some laps and we were up front most all day. We were able to make that pit stop decision to get four tires, because that was our chance to win. Even though we restarted eighth, we were able to drive back through the field and pass very, very good race cars.”
Makar’s winning pit strategy offered a small glimpse into the instrumental role he played in the team’s consistency that season.
“His work ethic is second to none,” Labonte said about Makar. “I think the cream rose to the top that year.
“When I went there in ’95, he (Makar) was applying bondo and setups back when the crew chief did all (of) that. The focus he had and then, obviously, getting Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) and Tony (Stewart) gave us a little bit of a push. We pushed each other further and further.”
Labonte’s Charlotte victory was actually the third consecutive win by a JGR driver with Stewart having won the previous two races.
For Labonte, though, it was Makar’s “pride, work ethic and desire” that made everything click for the No. 18 team.
“He was the right person at the right time,” Labonte noted.
One could describe the Charlotte victory as the finishing touch to Labonte’s phenomenal season that saw him place no worse than 26th in any event. He didn’t even enjoy that type of success in 1991 when he claimed the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. That year he failed to qualify for the season-opening race at Daytona and didn’t complete three events.
Labonte readily admits that in his entire career he never experienced anything like the season he enjoyed in 2000.
“We finished all but nine laps that year,” noted Labonte, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in late January. “Knowing our consistency going through that year, I have never experienced anything like that. It’s hard to fathom that many people could even do that today.”
Even though 36 races comprise the Cup Series schedule today, two more than in Labonte’s championship season, Labonte still believes his laps-completed accomplishment that season remains a modern-day record.
“I think Mark Martin’s season a couple of years earlier was the next closest at something like all but 50 laps,” Labonte commented. “Every weekend we were able to click off consistency. We just had all of the right ingredients for a successful year. It was a phenomenal year.”
About the Writer: Deb Williams is an award-winning motorsports journalist who was one of the first female writers to cover NASCAR on a regular basis. For many years, she served as editor of NASCAR Scene and presently works as a senior writer for RacinToday.com. She also hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”