Labonte still savors Brickyard win
Bobby Labonte remembers the excitement of competing in NASCAR’s first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994 and the excitement of experiencing one of the watershed moments of his career by winning the 2000 edition of the event then known as the Brickyard 400.
He will get to rekindle those memories this weekend at the fabled race course.
Labonte, without a full-time in NASCAR’s top series since the end of last season, will get a chance to extend his streak of competing in every race at IMS thanks to getting a chance to drive a third entry from Tommy Baldwin Racing.
“The big thing for Tommy is he's wanting to start at a third team,” Labonte said on a conference call Tuesday with former Brickyard winners Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd . “He’s got a lot of great crew members he wants to try out, get that ball rolling. . .It's just building his operation up. “Anyway, I'm trying to help him out, get to that point. Hopefully he can get to that point one day with a third team like he wants to get to. If it works out for him, I wish him all the luck.”
Driving for a team with no owners points, Labonte would be assured of getting into the field by being one of fastest 36 cars. If he doesn’t get in on speed, he could get a provisional starting position as a past champion.
If he does make the show, he would be just one of two drivers in the field who were in the 1994 race and would have started every Brickyard event.
The other is Jeff Gordon, who won the 1994 event as a rookie and has four Brickyard victories, which ties his teammate Jimmie Johnson for the most.
After all these years, Labonte says he gets tingles when he enters perhaps the most famous race track in the world.
“I was there the other day for the Goodyear tire test and I still get little goosebumps when I go in there even now,” Labonte said.
In that first Brickyard race, driving for Bill Davis Racing, Labonte finished 16th as the last one on the lead lap.
He will never forget riding around the track before the race in a pickup as part of driver introductions and seeing grandstands that hold over 300,000 jammed full.
“When the grandstands get full, it takes awhile to get adjusted to it,” Labonte said. “It's just kind of surreal in a way going out there, when we went out there the very first time in practice. I don't remember where I qualified, but Bill Elliott was right beside me. We rode around in the car before the race started, waving to the fans. Halfway around, Bill said, “Have you ever seen anything like this before? No, I haven't, this is the biggest thing I've ever seen in my life.’”
He added: “I was obviously a rookie or two years into it. Here is Bill that's been around, won races, championships, he's looking at it from that point of view as well. That kind of puts it into perspective of how important it was to understand everything about it that you see.
”The nervousness when you first get there, when we got there for the first practice, I thought it was pretty electrifying to me. Terrifying and electrifying. But it was a lot of fun. Looking back on it, really enjoyable. “
He won the 2000 race driving for Joe Gibbs after taking the lead from Rusty Wallace with just a handful of laps to go. Labonte said it turned out to be the springboard to winning the Cup championship that year.
For Labonte, it’s the most notable victory of his career.
“The next year, the next year, the next year, they recognized you in a lot of ways as you are on the trophy with so many other people who won at that track,” Labonte said. ‘It’s no different than this conference call, I didn't think this was coming. This is special to me, special to y'all, to be recognized as the winners of this.
“I think I told somebody, I said, It's the win that keeps coming. You haven't been forgotten. So that's really cool. That day we won, that convertible riding around, Victory Lane, kissing the (yard of) bricks. I'll just put it this way. I don't have many trophies in my house, there's like two, and one is the Brickyard trophy. Kind of shows you where I put that, if that makes sense to you. “
And while the Cup Series gets ready to return to Indy, the NASCAR Truck Series makes its second dirt-track stop at Eldora Speedway in Ohio tonight.
The 150-lap race, which is divided into three segments, starts just after 9 p.m. Austin Dillon, last year’s winner, is among the entries.