As the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series kicks off this weekend at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Brandon Jones will be taking a trip back in time for Saturday’s Xfinity Series season-opening NASCAR Racing Experience 300 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Jones, driver of the No. 19 Interstate Batteries Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), will have a familiar scheme and partner on board to honor newly minted NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Joe Gibbs and former JGR and Interstate Batteries driver Bobby Labonte. Jones will have the honor of sporting the Interstate Batteries scheme Labonte ran during the 1995 season while scoring his first win for the team in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedwaythat season, besting his brother Terry Labonte for the win that day.
Jones and his Interstate Batteries team are poised to keep up the Xfinity Series momentum they gained late in the 2019 season. Entering his third season driving for JGR, Jones is coming off a career year with six top-five finishes and, more importantly, his first career Xfinity Series win at Kansas last October.
Jones will throw it back to May 1995 when Labonte scored his first ever NASCAR Cup Series win. Labonte had been close to victory before, finishing second earlier in the 1995 season at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But in the longest of all NASCAR races, and just like Jeff Gordon had done one year earlier, Labonte was able to capture his first Cup Series victory in one of the biggest races of the season.
“That was a ‘leading-up to’ win,” Labonte said. “We had finished second to Jeff Gordon at Atlanta and Rockingham, so we were leading up to being a contender. We got to Charlotte and we qualified well and ran well. I remember following Kenny Schrader with about 50 laps to go and I was on him and catching him and catching him and I thought, ‘I don’t know, it’s going to be tough to pass him here, but we’ll give it our best shot.’”
“He broke a motor with about 40 laps left and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’ Because I had been running second in race after race after race and now I’m leading.”
His crew chief, Jimmy Makar, who is now the senior vice president of racing operations at JGR, knew exactly what to do. Get to the end of the 400-lap, 600-mile marathon race.
“You always know that anything can happen and it’s not over until it’s over,” Makar said. “But, when Schrader blew up, you realized that you’re inheriting the lead and other than Schrader, there was no one that was as strong as us at that point in the race. So, I knew that unless something happened to us, and anything can happen and you just never know, but you just knew we had a shot at winning it. And it was an ‘oh-my-gosh’ moment that was ‘Hey, we could win this thing.’”
“It was a real knot-in-the stomach moment when we took the lead and knew it was our race to lose. You just started counting laps.”
And the thought of beating his brother was not lost on Labonte in the closing laps.
“It was really cool because Terry ended up finishing second,” Labonte said. “We ended up pulling away from Terry and we had a big lead. It was just one of those things – you never forget your first win. I’ve always said that. It was just such a big event. Everyone was just on cloud nine and was happy to see it happen. We’d finished second a couple of times before that and had come so close. We knew a win was around the corner. We just didn’t know it was going to be in a big race like that.”
The victory came in Labonte’s 11th race with Joe Gibbs Racing and Interstate Batteries after he took over for Dale Jarrett at the end of the 1994 season. And the win was huge in validating JGR’s decision to hire Labonte when Jarrett left for Robert Yates Racing.
“I think it validated everything we did,” Makar said. “It was a huge confidence builder. We knew Bobby was a good racecar driver and had the potential to win, but a lot of guys have potential and never win. So for him to close the deal was a huge confidence boost for everybody. You just didn’t worry because you went in to races from that point on, knowing you had a chance to win. That was a big deal to all of us that year.”
For Labonte, it was a chance to give back to Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, who had welcomed him with open arms.
“Norm was the type of guy – it was never like ‘Hey, we had Dale Jarrett, now we have you, you better step up to the plate.” Labonte said. “There was none of that. To be honest with you, what I remember was that it was instantly like family. You just had a feel of that with Norm and everybody at Interstate. I was excited to have that kind of feeling.”
So as Jones heads back to Daytona to start his fifth full season of Xfinity Series competition, he’ll try and channel the Gibbs and Labonte Hall of Fame magic and get them to victory lane some 25 years later.