NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1995-2000)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2010

NASCAR, as a sport, was experiencing a burst of growth in 1995, both at its corporate headquarters and because of a successful new race, the Brickyard 400, held for the first time in 1994 in Indianapolis. Both Forbes and Sports Illustrated magazines featured cover stories about NASCAR in 1995, and the sport launched its website this year as well.

This excitement also spilled onto the track, as driver Jeff Gordon began giving dominant champion Dale Earnhardt a run for his money. NASCAR also launched the Craftsman Truck Series with an 80-lap race at Phoenix International Speedway. Mike Skinner became the series' first winner after qualifying 16th. 

A young Jeff Gordon took the points lead in the 16th race of the 1995 NASCAR Winston Cup season at Loudon, NH in July, and held off a gallant charge by Dale Earnhardt to win the 1995 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. The 24-year-old Gordon became the second youngest winner of NASCAR's crown.

With six races remaining, Gordon led Earnhardt by a hefty 309-point margin. With a strong late-season charge, The Intimidator sliced the deficit by large chunks each week. When the checkered flag fell on the season, Earnhardt was only 34 points behind. 

In 1996, NASCAR became a big enough operation to command a New York City office, and Jeff Gordon had his best season ever on the tracks, winning 10 races. However, he was outmaneuvered for the Winston Cup, which went to fellow Chevrolet driver Terry Labonte instead.

Hendrick Motorsports' teammates Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon battled for the 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup championship, and Labonte parlayed consistency to win his second title.  Labonte took the lead in the standings with a third-place finish at Rockingham in late October. Top-five finishes in the final two events were enough to capture the title by 37 points over Gordon.

Interestingly enough, Gordon won 10 races, while Labonte won twice during the '96 season. Both Chevrolet drivers had 21 top-five finishes and 24 top-10 efforts. Gordon led 2,314 laps as Labonte led 973 laps. Gordon seemed to have a better year, but Labonte was able to come out on top of the points race thanks to fewer DNFs. 

Jeff Gordon began the 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup season with a victory at the Daytona 500 and went on to 10 more victories and a Winston Cup championship. His winning ways were just beginning—Gordon had plenty left for the 1998 NASCAR season as well.

Starting the season off, Gordon drove past Bill Elliott with six laps remaining and led a 1-2-3 sweep for the Hendrick Motorsports team in the 39th running of the Daytona 500. Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Craven ganged up on Elliott in the stretch drive and took the top three spots in NASCAR's most celebrated event. 

Later in '97, Gordon prevailed in a fender-rubbing final-lap skirmish with Jeff Burton to win Darlington's Mountain Dew Southern 500 and the Winston Million bonus. Gordon became the first driver to pocket the $1 million bonus since Bill Elliott won in the inaugural offering in 1985.

In his finest year to date, Jeff Gordon prevailed in a three-way showdown with Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin to win the 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup championship.  Gordon took the points lead with a September victory in Darlington's Mountain Dew Southern 500 and maintained the narrow advantage over his rivals for the rest of the season.

Gordon posted his second NASCAR Winston Cup championship by a close 14 points over runner-up Jarrett. Martin was only 29 points behind in the closest three-way title chase in NASCAR Winston Cup history.          

The 1998 season marked NASCAR's 50th anniversary, and the 40th running of the Daytona 500. Adding another layer of significance to the occasion, popular NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt registered a dominating win—after 20 attempts—in this crown jewel race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. 

Jeff Gordon, however, would take the season's ultimate title for the second year in a row. Experience the excitement again with our 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup chronology, which features several pictures of 1998 racing events.

With the Thunderbird no longer available, Ford introduced the Taurus for competition in NASCAR's 50th Anniversary season. Dale Earnhardt ended two decades of frustration at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt, making his 20th start in NASCAR's annual "Super Bowl," leads the final 61 laps and edged Bobby Labonte at the finish. It was the 71st win of Earnhardt's career, and it snapped a victory drought that dated back to 1996.

Jeff Gordon bagged his sixth victory in seven races and won another Winston No Bull 5, and a one million dollar bonus with a win in the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington. Gordon also padded his lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings to 199 points over Mark Martin.

Gordon motored to a 364-point win over Martin to capture his third championship during NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration.  Gordon would ultimately win 13 races, tying a modern-era mark established by Richard Petty in 1975. Mark Martin marked his third runner-up finish for NASCAR's championship.

NASCAR prepared for the new millennium with a whole fleet of new, young drivers, and Dale Jarrett won the Winston Cup championship in 1999 after a long points battle with Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin. 

There were also more eyes on the NASCAR Winston Cup series racetracks than ever before, as television ratings soared and extra seats were added in many locations to meet the demand for tickets. In 1999, only National Football League events ranked higher in popularity among Americans than NASCAR events.

Rookie Tony Stewart led 333 of the 400 laps and dominated the Exide Batteries 400 at Richmond International Raceway. It was the first NASCAR Winston Cup win for the talented freshman driver. Bobby Labonte, Stewart's stablemate on the Joe Gibbs team, finished second. 

Not to be outdone, Joe Nemechek pulled a shocking upset by winning the Dura Lube/Kmart 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. It was Nemechek's first career NASCAR Winston Cup win and the first victory for team owner Felix Sabates since 1995.

Later in 1999, Dale Earnhardt came from the 27th starting spot to win the Winston 500 at Talladega Super Speedway in the final laps. Earnhardt squeezed past Dale Jarrett with four laps remaining and nabbed his 74th career NASCAR Winston Cup triumph.  

Dale Jarrett moved into the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup points lead in May with a victory at Richmond and never gave a backward glance as he stormed to his first championship. Jarrett won four races during the 34-race campaign and finished 201 points ahead of runner-up Bobby Labonte. 

Jarrett became the second second-generation driver to reach the pinnacle of NASCAR Winston Cup stock car racing. He and his father Ned joined Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-son combinations to wear the championship crown.

Labonte won five races en route to the runner-up spot in the championship chase. Two-time winner Mark Martin came in third. Jeff Gordon won the most races, with seven, but finished sixth in the final tally.


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