This year's AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway marks the 15th anniversary of a historic day for both NASCAR and one of the sport's greatest brother duos to ever compete.
On November 10, 1996, Terry Labonte entered the NAPA 500 leading the point standings while playing injured. During the previous weekend's events at Phoenix, the elder Labonte had fell victim to a stuck throttle in practice, crashing his No. 5 Chevrolet into the wall and breaking his left hand. Labonte was able to nurse his Hendrick Motorsports ride home that day with a third-place finish, giving him a 47-point lead heading into the season's final race at AMS. A finish of eighth or better would lock up Terry's second points title, making him the 1996 champion.
Meanwhile, Terry's younger brother, Bobby, was finishing up his fourth full-time season behind the wheel of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries machine. After winning three races the prior season, the 1996 campaign had been somewhat of a disappointment for the team. The Joe Gibbs Racing team entered Atlanta winless for the season, and Labonte was looking to use the season's final race as a springboard for 1997.
"It was one of those weekends," says the younger Labonte. "We were close to winning a few races at times. We went to Atlanta and knew we had a good shot. We won the pole, Jeff (Gordon) qualified second and Terry (Labonte) was third. I just knew we had a good enough car to win. We were just pumped for it. It was the last race of the year, we hadn't won yet, we had the mojo going our way."
With the two brothers qualifying so close together, a little strategy came into play the night before the race.
"I talked to Bobby on Saturday night, and I told him I needed to lead a lap," says Terry.
Bobby would help older brother out by allowing him to lead a lap and gain five bonus points, before taking the lead back for himself. On top of this, Gordon suffered a loose wheel early in the event and made an unscheduled pit stop, losing two laps in the process.
Gordon played catch-up for much of the day while Bobby dominated, leading 147 laps in the 328 lap event. Gordon rebounded and was able to bring his No. 24 Chevrolet home in third-place. But it was not enough for the "Ice Man," as Terry matched his car number with a fifth-place finish, capturing the 1996 crown by 37 points.
In a family-oriented sport such as NASCAR that features many successful family drivers, this was the first time in the 48 years of the sport that one brother won the day's race while another brother claimed the points championship. To celebrate, the two took an emotional side-by-side victory lap around the track, leading to a victory lane celebration that is still remembered to this day.
"It meant a lot," says Bobby, when reflecting on what that November afternoon meant to his family. "There was a lot of hard work and dedication that went into that. To win the race, for my family at the time it was like, 'How much better can it get?' One of the pictures I have in my office is of Rick (Hendrick), Joe (Gibbs), Terry, myself, and our parents. How much cooler can it get?"
As it currently stands, the Labonte Brothers are the only two brothers to both win NASCAR points championships, something that Terry struggles to put into words.
"I guess I don't know how to describe it," says Labonte. "It's awful exciting, especially when you see some of the other brothers that have raced, the Allisons, the Flock Brothers, and so on. For us both, we've won about the same number of races, same number of poles. He's won a title and an IROC title. We both did that. We are just real fortunate to be with good enough teams to win titles. Not everyone had that."
With two brothers competing in the same sport, it would be easy to assume there has been some sibling rivalry between the two over the years. That would actually not be the case. With a seven year age gap between the two, there was little direct competition between the two in sports, whether that was football or racing.
"I don't think it's changed a lot," says Terry when asked about how their relationship has changed over the years. "Growing up, I was like seven and a half years older than him, so there was enough of an age difference that we never competed at anything until we started running stock cars at the Cup or Nationwide level. We never really were competitors, and then when he started racing with me in the Cup series, our Nationwide cars came out of the same shop. We were almost teammates. And as far as Cup, we always have had a lot of respect for each other. We've never raced each other as hard as other brothers may have."
Over his career, Bobby has laid his claim to being the man to beat at Atlanta. He is currently the active all-time wins leader, with six wins at AMS, the first being the previously mentioned 1996 victory. There may be no better person that knows how to get around Atlanta's high banks.
"Obviously it means a lot to have the most active wins," says Bobby. "Some guys can say that for other tracks and I get to say it for Atlanta. 500 miles at Atlanta is one of the toughest races we go to. I'm more physically exhausted and drained after a race at Atlanta than other places. It is so fast, and so many guys are sliding around and trying to find the groove. You are inches off the wall. I consider it one of the toughest tracks we go to. So to have as many wins as I have is a pretty cool feat to have. I always look forward to going back."
Bobby will return to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-4. He will be piloting his No. 47 Bush's Baked Beans Toyota as he seeks his seventh win at the historic 1.54-mile speedway in the AdvoCare 500.
NASCAR night racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-4. Tickets for the AdvoCare 500 start at $39 and $19 for students. Children 12 and under admitted free for the Great Clips 300 and the Atlanta 200 with an adult ticket. For more information, call the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (877) 9-AMS-TIX, (770) 946-4211 or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.