NASCAR Then and Now: Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte Take Off in 1995

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NASCAR Then and Now: Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte Take Off in 1995
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Prior to the start of the 1995 NASCAR Winston Cup season, team owner and famed NFL coach Joe Gibbs and his team were seen as something of a novelty act.

After all, he was just a good old Christian boy pursuing a lifelong dream of immersing himself in the world of motorsports.

Sure, the three-time Super Bowl-winning legend found some success with driver Dale Jarrett, who won a pair of races (including the 1993 Daytona 500) and a fourth-place points finish. Good, but still miles behind Chevrolet elitists like Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Still, the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet unit and its critics had to wonder: Were they for real or just a link for NFL fans to identify or occasionally watch stock car races on Sundays?

Little did anyone know at the time, but as a result of the death of Davey Allison, as well as the near-fatal crash of Ernie Irvan during the summer of '94, a domino effect took place in the sport. While subtle at the time, its ramifications were felt soundly in the later years.

Jarrett, who chauffeured the bright/dark green and black Luminas since 1992, decided to part ways with Gibbs and crew chief Jimmy Makar for a career-making ride with Robert Yates' famed but tragic No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford Thunderbird and head wrench Larry McReynolds.

Although he would face tremendous scrutiny and criticism for not immediately producing like Allison and Irvan, Yates' acquisition of the talented Jarrett would prove fruitful as a long-term investment with race wins and the 1999 Cup trophy.

With Jarrett's departure, all eyes turned to the Joe Gibbs Racing camp, who needed a driver for its single-car operation. It had a sponsor, a competent crew chief, and a solid pit crew. Now, it just needed someone to urge their machines to victories and consistency.

Enter into the stage a wide-eyed Texan who happened to be an underrated leadfooter whose aggression was matched with a cunning ability to drive with brilliance and calculation.

A relative young gun, this '93 Rookie of the Year runner-up just needed a legit chance to show fans that he was, indeed, a racecar driver.

That 31-year-old sensation was none other than Bobby Labonte, the often-flashy younger brother of "Texas" Terry. Diligent, hard-nosed and often hot-tempered, Labonte was given his chance of a lifetime when he signed on-board as the driver of the No. 18 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Everything that the young gun needed was at his disposal.

Horsepower?

You betcha.

A crew chief who could match as well as harness his temper?

10-4.

A car owner who'd back him up even with a busted radiator?

Been there, done that.

While Yates found success following the '95 season, Gibbs' investment in Labonte proved to be successful right away in that 31-race campaign. That wasn't to say that the road to a Top 10 points finish and victories that year weren't without their problems.

All in all, Labonte totaled six DNFs, with half of his trips to the garage area because of accidents. Sometimes, engine reliability was an issue, as well as equipment just not holding up for the No. 18 unit.

Like the case of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham in their early years, Labonte and Makar needed some time before their chemistry truly flourished into one of the best in the sport. Growing pains are often experienced by the sport's top drivers and crew chiefs in coming to a common ground with communication and teamwork.

Still, what this duo compiled in 1995 is remarkable considering that the young Texan was on the verge of a breakthrough season.

How does a three-win season sound, including a sweep of the two summer races at Michigan and an epic Memorial Day weekend 600-mile triumph at Charlotte Motor Speedway?

If Al Jardine was the rhythm guitarist that gave The Beach Boys their sound from 1963-'98, Labonte was the racer who urged JGR into the forefront of a true stock car powerhouse team.

Jardine was something of a quiet presence, but when he was heard, his killer vocals brought fans to their feet at home and at concert venues, along with his friends Mike Love and the Wilson brothers in Brian and the late Dennis and Carl.

The same could be said for Bobby Labonte, to a degree or so. His unpolished yet cunning style evolved throughout the late 1990s, as the aggressive racer began to emerge as a constant threat for race victories and eventually Cup titles.

Soon, the wins became reachable, with Labonte developing a knack at venues like the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Michigan International Speedway. That unharnessed need for speed was prevalent at NASCAR's big track stops, finding comfort in the plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega as a reputable drafter.

Gibbs' investment paid off so much that he decided to defect from the Chevrolet camp following the relatively decent 1996 campaign and switched to Pontiac's banner for the '97 season. By flocking to Pontiac, the Gibbs team became the flagship operation for the somewhat underrated manufacturer.

Sound like a theme?

From 1997 to 2000, the one driver who constantly improved and developed himself as a dark horse championship contender was the man behind those Interstate Batteries Pontiacs.

Almost mirroring his '95 campaign, Labonte's first half results in '97 were not all that spectacular. Still, his finishes were strong enough to keep him within the Top 10 points.

Then came the fall of that year, and fans saw the true ascension of Bobby Labonte, the title contender. He nearly won the October 500-miler at Charlotte, coming home in second place.

Another runner-up finish at Talladega the following Sunday saw the 33-year old suddenly thinking: "I'm close to winning races on a consistent basis."

His worst finish down the stretch was a 23rd at Phoenix, but who was really worried, anyway? Atlanta was on the horizon, and despite a reconfiguration that year, it was still Bobby's House.

Sure enough, he delivered on race day, coming from a 21st starting position all the way to a victory on that bright Sunday afternoon. Much like his victory at the season finale the year before, Labonte pulled through in the clutch for a "W" in the season stats column for him and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Starting in 1998, Labonte honed his consistency game, which in turn, saw him rising in the points tally to a sixth place finish, with a pair of wins, 11 top-fives and 18 top-10s.

It got even better in '99, when he finished the year as the championship runner-up, with five victories, 23 top-five results and 26 top-10 showings. Those numbers had the words "future Winston Cup champion" staring at the No. 18 crew's face for the 2000 season.

Indeed, he would make good on his potential and improvement, capping off a Winston Cup-banner year with four checkered-flags, 19 top-five finishes, and 24 top-10s in 2000. That is the kind of devotion and teamwork that Gibbs invests into a brand of philosophy he believes in, be it in the gridiron or stock car stadiums of America.

Just imagine if JGR passed on Labonte during the last portion of 1994. Considering the free agent pool, with the likes of Lake Speed, Kenny Wallace, and Dick Trickle—who were all respectable drivers—how would this team's future look without Labonte in the picture?

Would Tony Stewart's career have started and peaked because of his time with this organization?

Or how about Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano? Would they ever receive their opportunities in big league stock car racing?

Today, it is Toyota's flagship team, stacked with young talent all across the board. Makar has become a well-respected manager for the team, while Gibbs has the help of his son J.D. in running the organization.

Labonte's career may have faded several degrees, but the union between he and Gibbs speaks volumes for a team that was almost laughed at by the stick-and-ball fans from day one in late 1991.

Now, in 2010, it is a powerful team that has the makings of upsetting the Hendrick Motorsports dynasty in the unknown, exciting decade of racing that lies ahead.

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