Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte: Twice as Nice in Richmond
Flashback: Stewart’s First NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Victory at Richmond Leads First 1-2 Finish for JGR
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 13th of the 20 releases.
In 20 years of competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has enjoyed several milestones. There are the three Sprint Cup championships – Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005 – Dale Jarrett’s 1993 Daytona 500 victory, Labonte’s 2000 Brickyard 400 win, and Stewart’s triumphs in the Brickyard 400 in 2005 and 2007.
But, perhaps an overlooked moment for JGR that is one of the most important in the organization’s history occurred on Sept. 11, 1999, when then-rookie Stewart won the 400-mile Sprint Cup race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. It was Stewart’s first Sprint Cup victory and he beat his teammate Labonte to the checkered flag by 1.115 seconds to give JGR its first-ever 1-2 finish.
Most importantly, it proved that JGR could operate successfully as a multi-car team.
From 1992 to 1998, JGR fielded only the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car, first for Jarrett from 1992 through 1994 and then for Labonte from 1995 through 1998. For 1999, JGR brought 1997 IZOD IndyCar Series champion Tony Stewart into the fold as pilot of the No. 20 Home Depot machine.
By the time the series rolled into Richmond in September of 1999, Stewart had amassed two poles and 15 top-10 finishes in 24 starts, while Labonte had four wins, three poles and 16 top-10 results.
Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Stewart joined Labonte in victory lane, and he did so in dominating fashion at Richmond by leading 333 of 400 laps en route to his first Sprint Cup win.
In victory lane following the race, in addition to Home Depot, some of the first people Stewart thanked were Labonte and all the people at Interstate Batteries.
“Obviously, you’re never going to forget that first win,” Stewart said. “But to do it the way we did it, leading a ton of laps and then to have my teammate finish behind me to give Joe Gibbs Racing its first 1-2 finish, it was just an awesome night. For me, personally, it was a great accomplishment, but it also showed how strong JGR was. People forget how big of a deal it was back then to go from one car to two cars. Now, multi-car teams are the norm, but back then it was still kind of new, so to have the season we did in ’99 and have the 1-2 finish at Richmond was huge for the team.”
Amazingly, in Stewart’s first five Sprint Cup wins, Labonte finished second or third each time.
“That’s a pretty amazing stat,” Stewart said. “It shows how strong we were as a team right out of the gate. Bobby was a great teammate and our two teams worked really well together. And that’s a tribute to Joe (Gibbs, owner). He’s such a good leader and he did a great job of putting together people who would work well together. And we were strong right away.”
Since the first 1-2 finish at Richmond in 1999, JGR cars have finished 1-2 10 times, most recently at Richmond this past spring when Kyle Busch won and Denny Hamlin finished second. And when JGR cars accomplish the rare 1-2 result, team officials know to enjoy it.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how hard it is to accomplish a 1-2 finish,” said Jimmy Makar, former crew chief on the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car for JGR and current vice president of racing operations. “It’s an amazing event. You see it a little more now because there are a lot more opportunities than there used to be. There are more multi-car teams with really strong cars. So, you see it a little more often, but it’s still not an easy thing to do. It’s difficult, but it’s very rewarding. It’s what we set out for every time we hit the racetrack.
“When you have one car have success and the other car not have success or have a mediocre day, it makes it hard to enjoy the victory when you know another part of your organization is suffering. The closer you can get the cars to run consistently up front together, the better it is for everybody, obviously.”
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