Atlanta — The Southern Home of Joe Gibbs Racing
JGR Drivers Have 11 Wins and Three Poles in NASCAR Sprint Cup Races at 1.5-Mile Oval
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written for the 20th anniversary of Interstate Batteries’ and Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR partnership and has since been updated to reflect statistics through the 2015 season.
Because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is essentially a traveling circus never conducting a points-paying race more than twice at any track throughout the season, no team or driver can really claim a “home field advantage.”
Nearly all teams are based in and around Charlotte, N.C., so the two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway are considered home races for nearly every team, giving no particular organization an advantage.
But for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), Atlanta Motor Speedway has become the closest place to a “home track,” as the organization has dominated at the 1.5-mile oval throughout the last 25 years.
And the man who has seen all of the success up close has been Jimmy Makar, former crew chief on the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for JGR driven by Labonte and current senior vice president of racing operations of the organization.
“We’ve just been real fortunate at Atlanta,” Makar said. “It takes a few things to be successful at Atlanta and we’ve always had that. We’ve always had good solid cars with good downforce that handle well. We’ve had a lot of horsepower and it takes a lot at Atlanta to get around. And, we’ve had great racecar drivers for that racetrack. Bobby, Tony, Kyle, Denny – even Dale (Jarrett) in the early years of JGR was always good there. Sometime you hit tracks like that where the combination of what you have just works.”
In six races at Atlanta when Jarrett was driving the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for JGR from 1992-1994, he finished 11th or better four times. When Bobby Labonte took over the green Interstate Batteries machine from Jarrett in 1995, he was the king at Atlanta, winning six times (November 1996, November 1997, March 1998, November 1999, November 2001 and March 2003) and scoring two poles (November 1996 and March 1999).
In addition, he finished second three times, including a loss in March 2000 when the late Dale Earnhardt edged him out by .010 of a second.
“I always have liked racing at Atlanta,” Labonte said. “For some reason we were just always really good there. We managed tires well and we always had great cars. It’s a place I’ve always looked forward to going to.”
Perhaps more impressive for Labonte – and JGR as a whole – is that they won on the old Atlanta configuration, which was a 1.5-mile oval, and the newer configuration which was finished in the fall of 1997 and is a 1.54-mile quad oval with a dogleg in the frontstretch.
“I liked the older configuration myself,” Labonte said. “But obviously we were really good on the new one as well. It’s a fast track and for whatever reason we just clicked on something there.”
Stewart became the first JGR driver not named Labonte to win at Atlanta, taking the checkered flag in March 2002. He backed that up with a win in October 2006. Busch returned the No. 18 car to victory lane at the 1.54-mile oval in March 2008 and again in 2013, while Hamlin scored a pole at the track in September 2010 and a win in 2012.
JGR’s success has also come via different manufacturers. Labonte drove a Chevrolet to victory in 1996, while his next four wins, plus Stewart’s 2002 triumph came via the Pontiac brand. Labonte’s 2003 win and Stewart’s 2006 victory came with Chevrolet power, while Busch’s 2008 and 2013 wins and Hamlin’s 2010 pole and 2012 win came with Toyota.
Considering the different track layouts and the different manufactures JGR has used, even Makar is a little surprised that JGR has remained successful at Atlanta for nearly two decades.
“It’s a little surprising,” Makar said. “Anytime you see an organization stay strong at a particular racetrack for that amount of time, it’s a credit to the organization. There are teams at other racetracks that you know when you go there you’re going to have to beat them to win the race. It’s hard and it’s been hard to do. We’ve been very fortunate and we’ve had the combination it takes and we’ve been able to make adjustments to the cars as tires have changed and the specific type of racecar we’ve had there has changed. The track has been wearing out and changing more and more and we’ve been able to keep a handle on it.
“It’s a good organization and the guys have done a good job of adjusting and the drivers have too. They’ve always adjusted to the conditions.”