All eyes were on the championship run when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series headed into the Phoenix International Raceway for the running of the Dura Lube 500k as the 1996 Winston Cup season was coming to a close. Three men had a shot at the championship with just two races left in the season.
The points leader coming into the 312 mile event was Terry Labonte. Labonte was in his third season with an up and coming powerhouse known as Hendrick Motorsports. Labonte won the 1984 championship running for car owner Billy Hagan. From that operation he moved to Junior Johnson's Budweiser Chevrolet before the two would part ways after the 1989 season. In 1990 Labonte would run for car owner Richard Jackson, where he spent one season. From there he went back to his former car owner Hagan, where he would run three seasons with moderate success. When 1994 came along, it had been four long years since Labonte sniffed victory lane.
That ended in 1994 when car owner Rick Hendrick gave him an opportunity to drive for one of the best teams in racing. He would be paired with sponsor Kellogg's and the Hendrick team added a crafty veteran to its raceteam. By the time 1996 came along Labonte was once again a championship contender. He would win two races in 1996 and be as consistent as Terry Labonte had always been.
Thirty-two points behind Labonte was defending series champion Jeff Gordon. Gordon was in the midst of his best seasons at Hendrick and was fighting with Labonte. It appeared that it would come down to the two drivers.
Dale Jarrett was having other thoughts. He was 76 points back of the lead and was in his second season at Robert Yates Racing. He spent three seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing previously to Yates before filling in for the injured Ernie Irvan in 1995. In 1996 Yates had created a second team for Jarrett and he was in his first season with crew chief Todd Parrott. Jarrett was in the start of his best seasons of his career.
The 1996 Dura Lube 500k would be remembered for something else, however it would come after a twist to the championship. On Friday before the race Terry Labonte would crash his special silver paint schemed Kellogg's Chevrolet hard into the front stretch wall after his throttle stuck. The impact would sideline Labonte for a few practice sessions where teammate Ken Schrader broke down his car. Labonte would qualify his car with the injured wrist in the 30th position, but he would be ready with a special steering wheel to run the entire 312 miles at Phoenix. Gordon would roll off 19th and Jarrett fifth. The field took the green flag with Bobby Labonte and Mike Skinner on the front row.
By lap 100 the race was a third of the way through and it appeared the two cars that were the class of the field were Mark Martin and Bobby Hamilton. Martin was running his familiar Vavoline Ford for Roush Racing, in his ninth season with the organization. Hamilton was in his second season with Petty Enterprises, running the famous STP colors and the famous #43. The number hadn't been to victory lane since July 4, 1984 when Richard Petty won his 100th win. Petty Enterprises hadn't been to victory lane since 1983. Petty left the organization in 1984 only to return in 1986. He would run through the 1992 season and struggled in his last seven years of his career.
In 1993 Petty had retired and had hired Rick Wilson to take over for him. By 1994 Wilson was replaced by Wally Dallenbach Jr, who was fired in the middle of the season and replaced by John Andretti. For the start of the 1995 season Andretti was replaced by Hamilton, who was in his first premier ride.
Hamilton had some unfinished business at Phoenix from an incident that happened just seven years early. In the 1989 running of the event, Hamilton was making his cup debut driving a Rick Hendrick prepared car for the movie "Days of Thunder." He was driving the #51 Exxon Chevrolet, which in the movie would be driven by Rowdy Burns. Hamilton was doing his own display of driving. On lap 209 he took the lead from Geoff Bodine, shocking the NASCAR world as he was well on his way to victory in his first ever NASCAR Winston Cup Series start. Five laps later, however, his engine would expire ruining what could have been a wonderful Winston Cup Series debut for the Tennessee native. In 1996 Hamilton was looking for revenge.
On lap 112 of the race Hamilton would take the lead from Mark Martin after Martin and Cope made contact, sending Cope's #12 Bobby Allison Racing Ford into the outside wall. By lap 136 Hamilton was still hanging in a strong second to Dale Jarrett. On the final caution Jarrett was leading when he would stop for four tires and fuel and during the round of pit stops Jarrett would make contact with Ken Schrader. Jarrett's car had some right front damage and the lose of track position put him back.
When the race restarted on lap 266 Geoff Bodine was in the lead after staying out on the racetrack during pit stops. Bodine had to hold off a hard charging Hamilton, with Terry Labonte close behind in third. On lap 282 Hamilton would get Bodine for the lead as Terry Labonte moved on passed Bodine as well for second. Hamilton's lead began to stretch when he pulled away from Terry Labonte. Labonte would lose second to Mark Martin on the final lap, as Hamilton would win by 1.1 seconds.
It was Petty Enterprises' first NASCAR Winston Cup victory since October 1983. It was Hamilton's first career NASCAR Winston Cup victory. Car owner Richard Petty was in his pits when TNN broadcaster Glenn Jarrett interviewed him. Petty thanked all the guys for their hard work.
"All these years of workin, it paid off today," a somber Petty said.
For Hamilton it was a long road. It was his first career NASCAR Winston Cup Series win in his 167th career start. Hamilton was nothing but thankful for the performance of his raceteam.
"They done such a great job workin on this car, this is the same car we took to Wilkesboro and Martinsville and the thing was so good on long runs and we knew when we come here we had to be good on long runs too," Hamilton said as he was smiling with Richard Petty in victory lane. "This one's for Dale Inman," he finished.
It was a productive day for Terry Labonte who finished with a tough third place finish. Labonte would lead Jeff Gordon by 47 points as they headed into Atlanta. Labonte would win the championship at Atlanta with a fifth place finish. It was his second and final career championship.
For Hamilton it was his first of four career NASCAR Winston Cup victories. He would run his last NASCAR Cup race in 2005 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Hamilton would run in the Craftsman Truck Series until the 2006 season when he would be diagnosed with cancer. He would parish from the disease on January 7, 2007.
However, the Dura Lube 500k at Phoenix International Raceway will be remembered by race fans as the race where Bobby Hamilton got his revenge and brought one of NASCAR's most historic teams back to victory lane after a long drought.
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