Labonte scaled new heights in 1999 By Marty Smith NEW YORK (Dec. 3, 1999) If nothing else, Bobby Labonte received a thorough education in the ethics of leading the pack during the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season. Running up front has a ...
Labonte scaled new heights in 1999 By Marty Smith
NEW YORK (Dec. 3, 1999) If nothing else, Bobby Labonte received a thorough education in the ethics of leading the pack during the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season. Running up front has a profound affect on drivers and their teams, and if there's one thing Labonte was consistently good at in 1999, it was running up front.
Labonte finished second only to Dale Jarrett in the championship hunt, concluding his finest season to date in fine fashion Nov. 21 when he held off the champ to win the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"This year we got a lot closer than we ever have been," said the driver of Joe Gibbs' No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac. "We learned patience. We learned about fast pit stops, fast race cars. If the car is close enough on Saturday afternoon you can make up for it on Sunday if it wasn't quite right. I think that's helped us out. Yeah, we have learned a lot.
"When you run up front like we did this year it seems like you do learn a lot. We were close this year and had a shot at it. We can't wait to get started next year to have another shot at it. We'll hopefully make the right breaks we didn't make this year."
Rarely did Labonte require fortunate breaks in order to contend for wins this season. Much like Mark Martin in 1998 and Jarrett in '97, Labonte finished second after a championship-caliber campaign. He finished the year with career highs in wins (five), top-5s (23), top-10s (26) and Bud Poles (five) and surpassed the $3 million mark in season winnings.
He won races at Dover, Michigan, Atlanta and swept both events at Pocono (the first time a driver has completed the sweep since 1986). He became the first driver in the 40-year history of Lowe's Motor Speedway to start from the pole in all three races, including The Winston.
Labonte also led every superspeedway race and collected the five-point bonus for leading at least one lap in 30 of 34 races this season. He finished the season with 10 consecutive top-10 finishes, a streak that began at Richmond in September. He fell out of just one event -- the Goody's Body Pain 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway -- also tying a career-best.
"We had a great year," Labonte said. "Winning five races is more than I've ever dreamed about thinking we could do at this time. Dale (Jarrett) had a great season. Every weekend he was the car to beat consistently. I can think of a big ol' barrel of tires I hit at Sears Point that really did me in more than anything."
That tire stack was a major factor in the outcome of the year. The two drivers headed into Sonoma, Calif., first and second in the point race, with Jarrett holding a slim 89-point advantage. However, after Labonte's mishap -- which happened when he was running in the top-5 -- he went on to finish 27th while Jarrett surged to a sixth-place finish, upping his lead to 157 points. Labonte would never get close again.
"Week in and week out we stayed there with him," Labonte said. "But we lost a gap there and we never could gain it back. We didn't win every race there at the end, but he wasn't falling out either. Congratulations to them because they deserved it."
That they did, but Labonte was on pace to win had Jarrett faltered. Prior to this season, Labonte had never scored more than 11 top-5 runs in a single season. He doubled that this year. The Atlanta finale may have been his finest effort in his finest season, as he overcame a season-worst 37th-place starting position to place his Pontiac in Victory Lane. He was the second driver in 1999 to win from a provisional starting spot.
"We got it going," he said that day. "This Interstate Batteries Pontiac was great today and what a way to end the year and the millennium. Joe Gibbs has done a great job with this race team and Jimmy Makar. Joe Gibbs has put together a great team and Jimmy Makar is very instrumental in everything.
"It's just been a great year. At the end of the year, five wins is just unbelievable. I just can't believe it. Again, congratulations to Dale Jarrett on the championship, he deserved it. He was the best car every weekend this year. We had our mistakes that we needed to fix up on. We'll work on that for next year.
"Our Interstate Batteries racing team did a great job and we had some great races. We won five races. I think we beat everything that we anticipated throughout the year, as far as goals that we set. It's one of those deals where we've just been real excited about it. We can't complain about anything."
"This showed the character of this Interstate Batteries team," Makar said. "You never give up. You don't ever give up. The championship was out of our reach coming into Atlanta and we had only one thing that could make it a good weekend here and that's come out here and try to win the race.
"We got here with a car that we hadn't run here yet and we really looked bad in qualifying. We really struggled a lot. The guys worked and never gave up and we got a good race setup under the thing. Bobby did a great job driving it. This team has come together so well this year."
Now that the No. 18 team has established itself as a consistent contender, it will join the elite of the sport as favorites to win the 2000 title, a distinction that will be gladly accepted.
"I think, yes, we (can challenge for the championship) in a lot of ways," Labonte said. "There are still some areas we need to work on. There are things that I learned this year that made me better. I think the team as a whole has gotten better throughout the year. Running up front you learn more. That's what we did this year.
"I congratulate those guys on the No. 88 team. They did a great job all year long. They were poised to get to this level because they had finished second or third the last two or three years. Dale and those guys learned everything three times more than I learned this year. Being second in points is a whole lot different than being 10th or eighth. They didn't have any problems and they ran good all the time. That was the key. Those guys didn't win enough and they finished in the top-5 a lot. That's what it takes.
"Anything can happen next year. We could start off the season really good and not fare well after that. Or we could start off bad and come on at the end. We really don't know. This is a great way to end the season and we're looking forward to next year, but we don't know what next year holds for us. We know we've got a great race team and we're going to start with the same attitude we had this year, and hopefully, the race tracks we did well at will treat us well again."