The 1996 NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway turned out to be a banner day for the Labonte brothers.
While younger brother Bobby celebrated the first of his six Atlanta wins, older brother Terry claimed his second Cup championship with a fifth-place finish. After the checkered flag, the two Texans took a side-by-side victory lap to the cheers of the crowd on a chilly November afternoon.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever done, I'll have to admit," Bobby Labonte said after climbing out of his No. 18 Chevrolet in Victory Lane.
Even a broken left hand suffered two races earlier couldn't slow down Terry Labonte, who correctly predicted what did happen.
"We talked about it [the night before]," Terry said. "I knew he was running awful good in practice and we were kind of joking around, and I said, 'It'd be pretty cool if you won the race and I won the championship -- and I never dreamed it would happen that way."
For each brother, the chance to celebrate in the season-finale was definitely worth the wait. The win ended what had been a disappointing season for Bobby on a high note. And for Terry, it validated owner Rick Hendrick's decision to hire him despite a four-season victory drought.
"I knew it was an opportunity to get back with a team that could win races and have an opportunity to win the championship," Terry said. "I was happy just being in the points race, being back in it. It's been exciting all year long."
And the final race of the year proved no exception. Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon -- who won 10 races that season -- came to Atlanta trailing Terry by 47 points.
But when Gordon had to pit for a loose wheel almost immediately after the green flag dropped, losing two laps in the process, Terry thought he might have it easy the rest of the day.
Instead, Gordon battled back to not only get both laps back, but also to take the lead. And when Terry stopped for two tires during the final round of pit stops -- while the rest of the leaders opted for fuel only -- that dropped him to 12th place and put his championship hopes in peril.
But the man they called "The Iceman" didn't panic. Instead, Terry steadily worked his way back into the top five over the final 100 miles. And when brother Bobby was able to get past Gordon to lead the final 42 laps, Terry had enough of a cushion to win the title by 37 points.
Gordon finished third in the race behind Bobby and Dale Jarrett, giving Terry the chance to raise the champion's cup for the first time since 1984.
He was overcome with emotion as he sat in the car after the race and tried to compose his thoughts.
"I never thought it would take me 12 years to win another championship, but I finally did it and it's a great feeling," Terry said in his post-race comments. "It seems like the longest race I ever ran.
"I just hung in there all day and did what I had to do. I could see everything that was going on in front of me."
Terry had planned to travel on Monday to join Richard Childress in Montana for a hunting trip to celebrate Labonte's 40th birthday, but those plans had to be pushed back a day.
It was truly worth the wait.
- Terry Labonte
- Bobby Labonte
- Jeff Gordon