By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (June 8, 2021)
Bobby Labonte had been to Pocono Raceway plenty of times before ever turning a lap.
That was thanks to his time working as a mechanic for his brother Terry Labonte’s NASCAR Cup Series car in the early 1980s. It took until his second year in Long Pond, though, to actually see what the property looked like.
“The first year, I went there, I never saw the track because it was always so foggy,” Labonte said. “You would sit and hear him come, you’d see him go by, and then they go out of sight.”
Eventually, Bobby got a great view of Pocono from behind the driver’s seat, making his Pocono debut in 1993 with Bill Davis Racing in the first of what would be 42 starts around the Tricky Triangle.
In his rookie year, Ken Schrader won the pole at 162.816 mph in 55.277 seconds. During practice, Labonte’s crew chief Tim Brewer expected lap times around a minute, 59 seconds or 58 seconds.
“When I first went out there and came back, my eyes were wide open,” Labonte said. “I went, ‘Did I get even close to a minute?’ Because it took me a while to get enough nerve to get to a minute.”
His early years at the track didn’t produce the best results. In his first 11 Pocono starts, Labonte’s best finish was 13th, placing outside the top 20 six times, even after shifting into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 car in 1995.
“I just remember that being like, dear lord this is huge,” Labonte said. “I’d been to Daytona, but not a two-and-a-half mile that took that long to get around. So it was very daunting to me to start with.”
It was after the 1998 Pocono 500 that Labonte and his JGR team finally figured something out, though. Jeremy Mayfield had won the race while Labonte finished 15th.
Watching the TV footage back, Labonte noticed something.
“I remember coming on the radio during the race, and I’m like, ‘I think we got to do something different,’” Labonte said. “And so we basically went back and watched the video of the race. And we were watching things on Jeremy’s car that’s just like, how does he get that? How is he doing that? What’s going on here?
“So my engineer, Derrick Jones, [crew chief] Jimmy Makar, everyone was … pinpointing this. We’ve got to come back in a month, right? And it’s like, ‘well, let’s try this. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.’ So we tried some stuff, we tried a different thought process going into it, and we came back and finished fourth.”
That fourth-place finish set the bar even higher for Labonte and propelled him to a sweep of both Pocono races in 1999. Labonte is one of only six drivers to sweep at Pocono — the others being Bobby Allison (1982), Tim Richmond (1986), Jimmie Johnson (2004), Denny Hamlin (2006) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2014).
“It just kind of clicked,” Labonte said of his team’s turnaround at Pocono. “It didn’t click here [mentally] as much as it clicked on the car, and what we did to it to make it work. And I just remember that that made our program different for a lot of tracks, especially Pocono.”
Fast forward to 2001 and the heated battle between Labonte and Earnhardt Jr. in the Pennsylvania 500.
Jeff Gordon had dominated the day and led 121 laps, but fuel strategy came into the picture late in the race following a debris caution at lap 171.
The result was a fierce showdown between relative newcomer Dale Jr. and defending Cup Series champion Labonte whileboth tried to manage gas. The iconic green, black and red No. 18 Pontiac hounded Earnhardt Jr.’s red and black No. 8 Chevrolet over the final 27-lap run, but not before Junior leaped out to more than a two-second lead.
That gap wasn’t safe enough. Labonte closed steadily corner after corner, and with four to go, Labonte was practically tied to Junior’s rear bumper.
“I felt like we were better and more so on the outside. We were definitely faster,” Labonte said. “He was on a little bit of a lighter fuel-saving mode than I was, so he was having to be a little bit more careful. So catching him probably became a little bit easier. I mean, he might not have been running 90%, but he might have had to back off 5%.
“Charging him down was not that hard. But obviously when you get to him and you try to pass him, then that became more difficult.”
Labonte got to the outside of Junior exiting Turn 3 coming to two laps to go and led at the stripe, but Junior fought back on the inside through Turn 1 and barely squeezed out ahead onto the Long Pond Straightaway.
Both cars swerved back and forth, drivers trying to outjuke each other before they reached the Tunnel Turn.
“The bumper cam is one of those cameras that, for that day, was the right camera to have to watch that race from for me because I was just all over his back bumper. He wanted to block low, and I just sailed it in on the outside through the Tunnel Turn and it stuck.”
The move knocked all the wind out of Junior’s sails, and Labonte cruised on to win his first race of 2001.
“That race there just meant a lot to me because of the way we were able to win it,” Labonte said. “You remember the ones you win. You do remember the ones you lose, but you remember the ones you win more because you have more fun. But just the way that it turned out, having to race him there at the end and the battle and all that stuff. And that rear bumper cam just tells the tale.
“When I sent it off in the Tunnel Turn, I mean, I don’t know that I could have qualified any faster than that. And I think it just surprised him and he was like, ‘I’m done.’”
That third Pocono win solidified Labonte’s legacy at the track as well as his appreciation of the Mattioli family.
“When you think about family and you think about the Mattiolis that put that together and made it what it is, that’s what’s so cool,” Labonte said. “That’s 50 years. It’s hard to stay current. It’s hard to stay after it after that many years. And that’s for the family and their dedication and all that has come through. Even my kids raced at that little quarter-midget track across the way. A lot of cool times at Pocono.”
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50