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Bobby Labonte grabs the title and Tony Stewart wins the Pennzoil 400.
By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000
HOMESTEAD -- Joe Gibbs did what he knew best.
Minutes before the start of the Pennzoil 400 on Sunday, the former NFL coach huddled with Bobby Labonte's pit crew and delivered a heartfelt pre-race speech.
"Nine years. Nine years we've worked ... " he said before his voice disappeared as the circle of men closed tighter.
The huddle broke moments later.
"All right, guys," Gibbs concluded. "Let's go."
By the end of the afternoon, Gibbs was standing on a portable stage near the finish line atHomestead-Miami Speedway, soaked by champagne, Jimmy Buffett music and the satisfaction of his best day as a Winston Cup car owner thanks to Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.
Labonte clinched his first Winston Cup title and a $3-million payday with a fourth-place finish, while Stewart dominated the event and won his series-leading sixth race of the season.
"I held my breath," said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins. "I didn't know you could do that for 30 laps. If you ask me what my favorite track is, I'm going to go with Homestead."
It was another steady performance for the 36-year-old Labonte, who has 18 top-five finishes this season and an insurmountable 261-point lead over Jeff Burton with one race remaining.
"I'm sure when I wake up (today) it will sink in more as it goes on," said Labonte, who started third in the No. 18 Pontiac. "It's overwhelming. It's the greatest thing. We've worked really hard toward this. It's a lot of weight off my shoulders. Whew, I can breathe a little bit now."
Stewart, who started 13th in his No. 20 Pontiac and had the fastest car all race, won the event for the second consecutive year.
And for the second consecutive time, he shared the celebration with the series champion. Dale Jarrett clinched the title last season at the 1.5-mile track.
Stewart didn't seem to mind.
"Nobody deserved to win the championship today more than Bobby Labonte did," he said. "He's just a great teammate. It's hard to explain how much of a help he is to me and how much of an inspiration he is to me in my career right now." Labonte won the title as the eyes of a national television audience, more than 60,000 in attendance and the entire Labonte family stayed fixed on his every move.
Terry Labonte, who won championships in 1984 and '96, kept abreast of his younger brother by peeking at scoreboards as he sped by in his No. 5 Chevrolet.
"I'm happy for him," Terry Labonte said. "For me, it's just kind of a relief. I've kind of been worried about it. I was worried that they were so close but yet they didn't have it. They've got it now."
The brothers are the first siblings to win Winston Cup championships in NASCAR's 51-year history.
"Just watching him and going through it with him (in '84) is a big deal," said Bobby Labonte, who has four wins this season. "We talk a lot, too, but we keep stuff to ourselves as well. I'm still one behind him."
Between sips of a soft drink, Bob Labonte Sr. said he never doubted his youngest son would win a title.
"It probably hasn't sunk in yet," he said. "I know how hard that Bobby and his team have worked at this deal. It's not something that happened overnight. Bobby's been racing since he was 4. I knew he could always do it."
Labonte went seven seasons without a championship, coming close when he finished second last season.
Stewart seems to be following Labonte's lead.
He has nine victories in 67 races.
"Ever since last year I've been honored to be in this series, let alone to be a driver and win races and be in the top 10 in points," Stewart said. "To be able to get six wins today and know that nobody can get more than five is a great feeling. We didn't win the championship, but we won a battle that is pretty satisfying."
Stewart and Ricky Rudd quickly moved to the front of the field during the 267-lap event. They were the only drivers to consistently run at the front in a race that featured minimal action.
Stewart and Rudd combined to lead 10 times before Stewart took it for good on Lap 219 after a restart for the third caution of the race.
Rudd, who led six times for 49 laps, finished sixth.
"We didn't have anything for Tony," he said. "He was just playing with us all day."
Jeremy Mayfield and Mark Martin finished second and third, respectively. Jimmy Spencer was fifth.
After taking the checkered flag, Stewart pulled alongside Bobby Labonte.
The teammates did a victory lap with arms extended outside the driver's side windows as the crowd, and Gibbs, cheered wildly.
"We both just motioned to each other, and I thought he was going to knock the door off my car because he was so happy," Stewart said. "It's hard to explain how simple things can mean so much but to be able to share that with him, that's a moment I will never forget."
TIME OF RACE: 3 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds.
AVERAGE SPEED: 127.480 mph.
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 4.561 seconds.
CAUTION FLAGS: 4 for 25 laps.
LEAD CHANGES: 15 among 7 leaders.
LAP LEADERS: Steve Park 1-9, Jimmy Spencer 10-24, Ricky Rudd 25-26, Elliott Sadler 27, Jeremy Mayfield 28-52, Tony Stewart 53-90, Rudd 91-92, Bobby Labonte 93, Rudd 94-96, Stewart 97-148, Rudd 149-151, Labonte 152, Rudd 153-183, Stewart 184-210, Rudd 211-218, Stewart 219-267.
NAPA 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN.