By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
As the Sprint Cup Series packs up and heads to the Lone Star State for the second time this season for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, the championship fight is in full swing in all three of NASCAR’s national series.
While the focus this weekend is on the here and now of how the championship battles will play out, we’ll take a step back in time to look back at a race from Texas Motor Speedway’s past. In this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”, we investigate the 1999 Primestar 500, a race where Terry Labonte, a native Texan, was able to pull off the win in front of his home state fans.
The 1999 edition of this race was the third race held at the track, but for the first two years, the track was terribly treacherous due to the abrupt banking changes entering and exiting each turn. So to help alleviate the issues that caused some of the crashes seen in the first two years, the track completely stripped the surface of the track and fixed the corner transitions to be much more gradual and also fixed the drainage issues that had plagued the track during its first two years of operation.
The track changes made the track faster than ever and the race would get underway under cool, overcast skies with the late Kenny Irwin, Jr. on pole with a lap of 190.154 mph, a track record. Irwin would be joined on the front row by Texas native Bobby Labonte.
After getting the green flag from then Texas governor George W. Bush, Irwin pulled away with the early lead and would hold court at the front of the field for the first 32 laps, until he was overtaken by Ken Schrader under the first caution of the day, a competition caution called by NASCAR.
Schrader would yield the lead to Mark Martin, the defending winner of the race at Texas, who would lead 32 laps before the second caution of the day flew at lap 71. Jeff Gordon, who was running second behind Martin, would blow a right front tire and slam the outside wall at the exit of Turn 4 hard and his car would come to rest in the infield grass between the frontstretch and pit road. Noticeably in pain, Gordon sat in his car for several minutes until rescue workers arrived to help him from the car.
Once the race went back to green, Martin would re-assume the lead after Ricky Craven led a lap during the caution period. Martin would stay out front for another 17 laps before Terry Labonte took his first turn at the front of the field on lap 90.
Labonte would led the next 35 laps before the yellow flag waved again on lap 125 due to Mike Skinner having issues with his right front tire and hitting the Turn 1 wall in an accident eerily similar to that of Jeff Gordon that had taken place just 54 laps earlier.
Just two laps after going back to green following Skinner’s crash, the yellow would come out for the fourth time of the day for a multi-car crash on the backstretch involving Kevin Lepage, Schrader, John Andretti, Geoffrey Bodine, and Rick Mast.
With Bobby Labonte in the lead when the caution flew, Terry Labonte was able to get around his younger brother on the restart and set sail out front for 13 laps before the younger Labonte and Martin were able to get back by for the lead.
A new challenger emerged at lap 161 as Ward Burton took over the race lead from Martin and held command of the race for the next 53 laps before ducking down pit road for green flag stops and allowing Martin back into the race lead.
Martin would lose the lead to Terry Labonte and then Dale Jarrett, but that was the least of his problems as he suffered the same fate as Jeff Gordon and Mike Skinner earlier in the race as he suffered a right front tire failure entering Turn 1 and went hard into the outside wall, ending his bid for a second straight Texas win. Due to Martin’s crash, Ward Burton, who was on pit road at the time for service would lose a lap in the process and his chances for the win were done as well.
Terry Labonte would be back in a familiar place out in front of the field after the race restarted and would lead the next 63 laps before the final round of green flag stops took place.
Dale Jarrett held the lead once the pit stops cycled through and would stay out front for 38 laps, but he would have to hold off a hard charging Terry Labonte, who was gunning for the win in front of his home state fans. As the two drivers hit the frontstretch on lap 322, Jarrett had to slow due to the lapped car of Chad Little and that is when Labonte made his move, pulling to the outside of Jarrett and past him for the lead.
As Labonte continued to knock off laps, the final caution flew with three laps remaining due to a spin involving Jimmy Spencer and Robert Pressley. Of course this was before the days of green-white-checkered flag finishes, so all Labonte had to do is beat Jarrett to the line to seal the victory and that is exactly what he did to score his lone win at Texas Motor Speedway.
Following Terry Labonte and Jarrett to the finish line was Labonte’s younger brother, Bobby, to give the Texas natives both a podium finish at their home state track.
“Thank you very much. I tell you what, I’ve got to thank all of the guys on the crew, this Kellogg’s Chevy ran great all day long. We were really fast. I didn’t know if I could get past Dale there or not. At the end he was awful strong. Got to thank all of our sponsors, Chevrolet, GMAC, Quaker State, and Mountain Dew,” Labonte said.
“We picked places to go test this year and I said I want to go here because this is a race I want to win. Besides Daytona, for me, coming here to Texas, this is awesome.”