There's no doubt which Winston Cup team will carry the most momentum into 2000: The terrific tandem of Bobby Labonte and Stewart made Joe Gibbs Racing the winningest stable on the tour from June through Sunday's season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta, in which Labonte won for the fifth time this season. Labonte ended the year with 18 top three finishes, while Stewart won three times. Their eight victories matched those of the duo of Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte with Hendrick Motorsports, and Jeff Burton and Mark Martin with Jack Roush Racing. What's more, Bobby Labonte, 35, and Stewart, 28, accomplished all this while driving Pontiacs, long considered the underdog brand in NASCAR.
Next season looks even brighter for the Gibbs team because Pontiac's racing version of the Grand Prix will remain the same while Ford and Chevy will be shaking down redesigned Tauruses and Monte Carlos, respectively. "There's a learning curve that both Ford and Chevrolet teams have to go through," says Pontiac Motorsports manager Fred Simmonds. "We're there."
Moreover, Stewart has been the most dazzling rookie NASCAR has ever known-better even than Gordon, who didn't win at all in his first year—and he shows the same sort of talent Earnhardt did 20 years ago. Owing to his dirt-track background, Stewart is fearless and almost flawless in a "loose" (oversteering) car. That condition is disturbing to most drivers, but it is the quickest way to get around a track.
Assuming that Labonte and Stewart continue to get along and that NASCAR doesn't change any technical requirements and thus negate Pontiac's advantage next season, the duo should dominate. Their relationship came under scrutiny at the Pennzoil 400 on Nov. 14, during which Stewart bumped Labonte as they were running side-by-side late in the race. Labonte brushed off the incident as inconsequential. "I don't think it mattered," he said. "I couldn't have beaten him anyway." For his part, Stewart was apologetic, admitting he had made a rookie mistake.
They may make next year's Winston Cup title race a duel of teammates. "In all honesty," says Stewart, "I would like to see Bobby win a championship before I do. Bobby's been running a long time [seven full seasons on the tour], and I feel like I've got a lot of years left—assuming I don't bang the wall too many times—to get mine."
Petty Team to Return in Dodges
Petty Enterprises is expected to join Dodge's reentry into NASCAR in 2001, as soon as the two entities announce the reunion. Richard Petty stopped driving Dodges in 1978, when he switched to Chevy. Since 1982 Petty Enterprises has been with Pontiac. The 2001 Petty team should include fourth-generation driver Adam Petty, Richard's grandson, in his first full Winston Cup season; his father, Kyle; and John Andretti, Mario's nephew....
H. Clay Earles, founder of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the oldest and smallest active track on the Winston Cup tour, died on Nov. 16 after a yearlong illness. He was 86. Earles opened the track in 1947, the year before NASCAR incorporated.