Labonte, Interstate Batteries Claim 2000 Sprint Cup Title
JGR Earns First Championship in Just its Ninth NASCAR Season
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 are being distributed throughout 2011. This is the 19th of the 20 releases.
If you ask Bobby Labonte, he’ll tell you he and the Interstate Batteries team had a better year in 1999.
But 2000, not 1999, was the year he and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries car scored the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
After winning five races, five poles and scoring 23 top-five finishes in 1999, the No. 18 team finished second to Dale Jarrett in the standings, 201 markers back of the top spot. Jarrett scored four wins and 24 top-five finishes en route to the title and finished outside the top-15 just four times.
Labonte finished outside the top-15 eight times in 1999 and that would end up being the difference in the championship battle.
One year later, Labonte and the Interstate Batteries team’s numbers were down across the board from 1999 as they scored four wins, two poles and 19 top-five finishes. However, like Jarrett did in 1999, they limited their bad finishes with only three outside the top-15 with the worst being 26th in the spring race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
The incredible consistency allowed Labonte to finish 265 points ahead of the late Dale Earnhardt in the final standings.
“I think the biggest thing for us was we were able to build on the momentum of ’99 and were poised to have a better run at the championship in 2000,” Labonte said. “A few small mistakes in 1999 put us in a spot where we really couldn’t challenge Dale Jarrett. But the momentum from the end of 1999 helped us through the offseason and we were able to get off to a really good start in 2000. We won Rockingham (second race of the season) and were just able to be amazingly consistent the rest of the year. I tell everybody that we ran better in 1999 than we did in 2000, but we just had the consistency in 2000 more so than we did in 1999.”
After a sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Labonte won the next week at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and finished fifth the next week at Las Vegas. Those three finishes allowed him to take the points lead as the series left Las Vegas, and he held the top spot for the next five weeks before briefly falling to second following a 21st-place run at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Following a runner-up finish the next week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Labonte retook the top spot and never looked back en route to the 2000 title.
For Gibbs, who had won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins, this one was a championship in another of America’s most popular sports. And Gibbs’ success in just his ninth year as an owner in NASCAR came as no surprise to Labonte.
“I didn’t really have any doubts,” Labonte said, “knowing that he was so successful in everything he had done. I don’t think I had any doubts in my mind we could successful because we had blinders on and we were just going forward. We knew we could do it.”
The title also was a credit to Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, who made a gutsy call in 1991 to sign as a sponsor with Gibbs’ new NASCAR team despite Gibbs having no driver, cars, building or employees.
“It was amazing, the faith that Interstate put not only in me when I took over for Dale Jarrett (in 1995),” Labonte said, “but also the faith they had in Joe back in 1991 when they gave him the opportunity and let him run with it. That was the true meaning of ‘team.’ With Joe and Interstate being together for 20 years – to me that’s just incredible. To me, it just goes back to the fact that Norm and Joe have a mutual respect and are just good people.”
With the championship secured, it was on to New York City for the end-of-the-year banquet. And to the champion went the spoils.
“I remember going to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange,” Labonte said. “That was a really neat day. And I got interviewed by Brian Williams (now the host of NBC Nightly News), which was really pretty cool.”
But, of all the things Labonte did during his championship season and postseason media tour, it was a trip to Washington D.C., that stuck with him the most.
“We had been at the White House and had taken a tour and we had some time, and the NASCAR folks asked, ‘What do you want to do?’” Labonte said. “I told them I wanted to go to Arlington National Cemetery. We went over there and watched the changing of the guard (at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider) – I had never seen that before. We then took a tour and saw the graves of John and Bobby Kennedy and, when we left, myself and the Winston people and the NASCAR people, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘That was pretty cool.’
“It was just such a moment. I’ve been there since, but that was the first time and it was really neat to have myself and Jimmy (Makar, crew chief) and Joe and J.D. (Gibbs) and our families and the folks from Winston and NASCAR all together. We were all there and everyone just was kind of standing there with their mouths open in awe. It was just really neat – and it kind of put everything in perspective.”