Labonte Takes Interstate Batteries to Victory Lane At Indy 2000 Brickyard 400 Win Over Wallace Began Championship March
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 ninth of the 20 releases.
Originally, it was thought that if a racecar sponsored by Interstate Batteries went to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it would be done in IndyCar competition and in the world-famous Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.
In 1993, Interstate Batteries sponsored Jeff Andretti in the Indianapolis 500 and, the following year, the famous green colors were on the car of Roberto Guerrero. It resulted in little success, however, as Andretti and Guerrero were both involved in accidents and finished 29th and 33rd, respectively.
During the time that Interstate was dabbling in IndyCar racing, it was announced on April 14, 1993, that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing would come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1994 and compete in a 160-lap race known as the Brickyard 400.
Interstate Batteries began sponsoring Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 car in 1992 and a stock car race at Indianapolis gave them another chance at victory lane at the “World’s Greatest Race Course.”
Unfortunately for Interstate Batteries, its string of bad luck at Indianapolis continued as Dale Jarrett, driving the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for JGR, finished 40th in the inaugural race after an accident allowed him to complete only 99 laps.
But by 1995, things began to look up for Interstate at Indianapolis. Bobby Labonte took over the No. 18 Interstate Batteries machine that year and finished a solid ninth in the Brickyard 400.
After a 24th-place result in the 1996 “400,” Labonte began an incredible stretch of success at the 2.5-mile oval. He finished second in 1997, just .183 of a second behind Ricky Rudd, and then notched a third-place finish one year later behind winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Mark Martin.
In 1999, Labonte scored another runner-up finish, taking the checkered flag just 3.351 seconds behind Jarrett.
Labonte entered the 2000 Brickyard 400 with a 53-point margin over Jarrett in the championship standings and both he and the Interstate Batteries team were determined to leave Indianapolis with a bigger point lead and, more importantly, a trophy.
Just as in years past, Labonte was a factor all day long as he qualified third and was in the top-five for nearly all of the 400-mile event. By the 100-mile mark, it was apparent that it was a two-man battle between Labonte and 1989 Sprint Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace.
Wallace led for all but two circuits from lap 44-118, giving the lead to Labonte only on laps 83 and 84 when he had to make a pit stop. But on lap 119, Labonte dove below Wallace on the backstretch to take the lead entering turn three and held the point for the next four laps.
On lap 123, Wallace put the same move on Labonte and retook the lead entering turn three before both cars had to pit for the final time for four tires and fuel on lap 131.
With both cars having enough fuel to go to the end of the race, Labonte set his sights on tracking down Wallace in the closing laps. Lap after lap, Labonte was right behind Wallace, never more than .2 of a second behind. But he couldn’t find an opening to slip by the veteran driver. Until Wallace made a slight mistake on lap 146.
“We kept working on our car and we got it better and better throughout the day,” Labonte said. “Our car was really good in the corners, but Rusty had incredible power on the straightaways. But, in a long run, at the end of a 20-lap run, we could catch him and pass him toward the end of it. But I knew that, this late in the race, it was going to be really difficult to pass him.
“I remember being on the radio talking to the guys while I was going down the backstraightaway going into turn three and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can get him or not, he’s pretty good – oh wait, hold on one second.’ I remember actually saying, ‘Hold on one second.’”
Wallace slipped his car ever so slightly into the high groove and Labonte saw his opportunity.
“I dove to the bottom to get under him in turn three and then we went through (turn) four side-by-side, and we came down the frontstraightaway and he had lost some momentum, so I was about even with his left-rear fender,” Labonte said. “I didn’t mean to touch him, but we ended up touching just a little bit and it gave him just a little a bit of a wiggle and that gave me the line going into (turn) one.
“So, I drove it in pretty hard, and then I kind of had to stop and he drilled me in the rear bumper going into (turn) two. So, by the time we came off of turn two and onto the backstraightaway, I was 10 car lengths in front of him because it just killed his momentum.”
By the completion of the 148th lap, Labonte had a 1.161-second advantage over Wallace. The lead would get to two seconds by lap 151 and, by lap 156, he had opened up a 3.455-second lead.
When the checkered flag flew on lap 160, it was Labonte over Wallace by 4.229 seconds. Labonte’s green Interstate Batteries machine became the first green car to win at Indianapolis since Jim Clark’s Lotus/Ford designed by Colin Chapman won the 1965 Indianapolis 500.
“From a career standpoint, any race you win is great,” said Labonte, who has 21 Sprint Cup Series victories. “There are always the ones that mean the most and that is the one, of the 21 races that I’ve won, that is the pinnacle and means the most. When you think of the IndyCar guys, the Formula One guys and the NASCAR guys who have won there, there’s not usually a fluke. It’s some serious company to be in.”
While the win was big, it was also beneficial as Labonte extended his points lead to 87 markers over Jarrett and began a march toward the championship. It was never really in doubt as Labonte ended up winning the title by 265 points over Dale Earnhardt.
“When you think about the year 2000, the Brickyard 400 win was a defining moment,” Labonte said. “It kind of sent a signal that, ‘Hey, we’re here for business and we’re going to do this thing.’ You could feel it and it was almost like we were destined to do it.”