Joe Gibbs Racing and Interstate Batteries memories, part 5
Labonte, Makar, Interstate Batteries Steal 2000 Southern 500
Fastest Pit Stop Puts Labonte Out Front as Rain, Darkness Hit Darlington Raceway
Editor’s Note: In honor of Interstate Batteries’ and Joe Gibbs Racing’s 20th anniversary together in NASCAR, a series of press releases highlighting 20 big moments will be distributed throughout 2011. This is the fifth of the 20 releases.
The record books simply state that Bobby Labonte won the rain-shortened Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Sept. 3, 2000. But the story of how the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) ended up in victory lane takes about as long to tell as the race itself, which took more than six hours to complete due to several rain delays.
The Interstate Batteries team entered the 24th race of the 34-race season with a 91-point lead over 1999 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett. But it looked as though that margin would be cut considerably after Labonte was involved in massive crash Sept. 1 during practice for the event.
Labonte, as drivers normally do, lifted off the gas pedal as he neared turn three of the 1.366-mile oval during a practice run. Unfortunately, the gas pedal on Labonte’s car stayed stuck to the floor, and he was unable to slow down enough, slamming the Interstate Batteries machine nearly head-on into the outside retaining wall.
“It was one of those, ‘Oh my gosh’ moments,” said Jimmy Makar, Labonte’s crew chief at the time and now JGR’s senior vice president of racing operations. “Before he even stopped rolling, he came on the radio and said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about me, I’m fine.’ He told us the car was killed and that we needed to get the back-up car out and that he would see me when he got back from the infield care center so we could talk about what we needed to do to get the back-up car ready.
“It was one of those, ‘Oh my gosh’ moments.
“It was interesting in that his head was in the game in a way that he never talked about what just happened. Instead, he was thinking forward about what we needed to do to get ready with the back-up car. He was focused forward and wasn’t concerned with what just happened, why it happened or how it happened. No one on the team got down either and everyone remained really focused.”
After getting only two laps of practice time in the back-up car, Labonte posted the 38th-fastest time and was forced to take a provisional starting spot. He rolled off 37th in the 43-car field, marking one of only four times in 2000 that Labonte started 30th or worse.
As Labonte began working his way through the field, it quickly became apparent that weather would be a factor in the 500-mile race. The race was red-flagged on lap 51 after heavy rain moved through Darlington and teams, drivers and fans waited through a nearly two-hour delay while the egg-shaped oval was dried.
When the race restarted, Labonte continued his charge toward the front, and as the race moved past the scheduled halfway point of the 367-lap distance, he found himself in the top-10. And on lap 241 while under caution, Labonte inherited the lead and stayed there until a lap-245 restart when he was passed by Jeff Burton.
But things got really interesting on lap 321 when a caution came out for oil on the track and all the leaders, including Labonte who resided in fifth-place, headed to pit road. The Interstate Batteries crew performed the fastest pit stop of all the crews and sent Labonte out in first place on lap 323.
He would stay there until lap 328 when the skies opened up once again and a heavy rain began falling. With the track drenched and darkness approaching, NASCAR officials brought out the checkered flag after only 448 miles had been completed, whereupon Labonte was declared the winner.
Labonte led only 10 laps and, unbelievably, all were under caution. He won the race without ever leading a single green-flag lap.
“It was just a wild day,” Labonte said. “We came in fifth and left first on the last pit stop. We took four tires, as did everybody because there were going to be several laps left in the race. I came out of the pit box and was going pit road speed and I just saw cars filing in behind me and I got to the end of pit road and I was in the lead. And when we came around and got the ‘one lap to go before green’ signal, the bottom of the sky fell out as we entered turn one before the restart. By the time we got around to turn four and took the checkered flag, it was flooded.”
The race was over and Earnhardt was beating my back bumper off and shaking his fist at me.
After taking the checkered flag, Labonte was “congratulated” by seven-time Sprint Cup champion Earnhardt, who had led 47 laps and finished third after being beaten out of the pits by the Interstate Batteries car.
“The race was over and Earnhardt was beating my back bumper off and shaking his fist at me,” Labonte said. “He was mad, but he was excited for me too. I just couldn’t believe we won that race. We never led a green-flag lap, we crashed a car in practice, had to take a provisional, everyone thought we were out – so to come back and win it was just amazing.”
The victory celebration was moved to the garage area as a vicious thunderstorm pelted the track “Too Tough to Tame”.
“The pictures I have of that victory lane – everybody is just soaking wet,” Labonte said. “And it wasn’t from sweat either. Everyone was just drenched from this massive thunderstorm that was going on.”
After crashing his primary car in practice two days before, it appeared that Labonte’s point lead might shrink. Instead, the victory put him 20 additional markers head of Jarrett to give Labonte a 111-point cushion. The championship was never in doubt again as Labonte won the 2000 title by 265 points over Earnhardt.
“That race was pivotal to us winning the championship that season,” Makar said. “To overcome that adversity and not only get a good run, but get a victory – that was a huge race for the team during the journey to the championship.”