Heading into this weekend’s trip to the Arizona desert for the running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, a visit to the past is in order for this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”.
This week, we’ll take a look back at the 1996 Dura Lube 500, which saw quite a few interesting storylines coming into the event and most certainly leaving it.
Back in 1996, Phoenix hosted just one race on the Cup Series schedule, the penultimate race of the season, which is the same place it still holds today. The championship battle was at full tilt when the series came to Phoenix that November with Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett all still within striking distance of each other and the championship.
Labonte held onto the points lead, but his quest for a second title took a turn at the beginning of the race weekend as he crashed his silver No. 5 Chevrolet after a hung throttle sent him hard into the wall during practice. The impact injured his left hand and left his chances of racing that weekend in doubt.
After sitting out the other pre-qualifying practice sessions and having Ken Schrader practice his car, Labonte returned to the car for qualifying with his hand in a cast and a special steering wheel that was loaned to the team by Joe Gibbs Racing. Labonte would qualify for the race in 30th, while championship rivals Gordon and Jarrett would roll off 19th and fifth, respectively.
The other storyline for the Dura Lube 500 besides the championship battle was the race itself, which would be a story of a storied team returning to glory.
Petty Enterprises hadn’t won a race since 1983 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty behind the wheel of the legendary No. 43 car (Petty’s final wins in 1984 came in a No. 43 car fielded by Curb Motorsports), but with Tennessee native Bobby Hamilton behind the wheel in 1996, the team finally had a shot to return to victory lane for the first time in 13 years.
Hamilton had made his Cup Series debut at Phoenix in 1989, driving the No. 51 Exxon Chevrolet for team owner Rick Hendrick. That car number and sponsor should seem familiar because Hamilton was driving in some of the racing scenes being filmed at Phoenix that day for the movie Days of Thunder. He would start the day in fifth and would lead five laps before his engine expired prematurely and left him with a 32nd place finish.
Needless to say, Hamilton was looking for redemption at Phoenix in 1996 and redemption would be exactly what he would get.
Through the first half of the race, two cars stood out as the class of the field, Hamilton in the No. 43 and Mark Martin in the No. 6.
Martin would lead for the majority of the first half of the race, but Hamilton’s car was much more superior on the long runs. The only problem with that was each time Hamilton got the lead during a long green flag run, a caution would come out and his advantage would be erased.
The Petty Enterprises group kept working on the car to make it better throughout the event and Hamilton would race his way to the lead for the final time on lap 283 and would never look back, leading the final 30 laps of the event as Hamilton scored his first Winston Cup Series victory. Sweet redemption, indeed.
“I’ll tell you what; the team did such a good job on this car. It’s the same car we had at (North) Wilkesboro and Martinsville and the thing is so good on long runs. We knew if we came here, we’d have to be good on short runs too. I’ll tell you what, I never would have thought Goodyear Tire was going to run so long. STP, this one is for you guys. They’ve been with Richard (Petty) for 25 years and having dry spells. We’re just glad to be here, man,” said Hamilton in victory lane, as he celebrated with his team.
As far as the championship contenders, “Iron Man” Terry Labonte turned in a gutsy performance to bring home a third place finish and increased his points lead over Jeff Gordon heading into the final race. Gordon would finish fifth, while Dale Jarrett would end the day in eighth.