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Memory Lane | Labonte Finishes Off Wallace for Heavyweight Win in 2000

The 2000 Brickyard 400 featured 43 cars, but it became clear within the first 40 laps that this event was going to resemble a heavyweight title fight more than a race.

1997 Brickyard winner Ricky Rudd won the pole and led the first 17 laps, but when Rusty Wallace took the lead from Jerry Nadeau on Lap 44, the race’s marquee could have resembled a fight poster reading “Rusty vs. Bobby: The Battle on the Bricks.”

1989 Cup Series champion Wallace, who had finished in the top eight in five of the first six Brickyard 400s, and Labonte were the only leaders for the rest of the 160-lap race. And they staged perhaps the greatest extended head-to-head duel in the 24-year history of the race, with Labonte prevailing with the most prestigious victory of his illustrious career.

Wallace was the dominant driver of the day in his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford owned by the legendary Roger Penske, leading 110 of the 160 laps. And when he took the lead from Labonte on Lap 123, it appeared Wallace would finally earn his long-sought first Brickyard victory and deliver the first NASCAR victory at IMS for Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history.

But Labonte never gave up. He closed the gap to Wallace’s leading car and stalked him for a few laps before making his decisive move on Lap 146.

Bobby Labonte

Labonte, who started third, nosed his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac owned by NFL coaching legend Joe Gibbs ahead of Wallace in Turn 3. But Wallace, who started 10th, didn’t throw in the towel.

Wallace and Labonte raced side by side down the front straightaway, with the right front of Labonte’s car rubbing against the left rear of Wallace’s car as they approached the Yard of Bricks. Labonte led at the line by a scant .004 of a second.

Labonte finally pulled clear of Wallace in Turn 1 on Lap 147 and then poured on the speed, building a gap of 4.229 seconds by the time the checkered flag flew after Lap 160. It was an impressive power play and the largest margin of victory in the race at the time, topped only once since then.

Despite the thrilling duel for the lead, this heavyweight fight was won in the pits, the auto racing equivalent of the corner in boxing.

The race, which featured an event-record average speed of 155.912 mph that still stands, featured only two caution periods for seven laps. The last 114 laps were run under green, giving teams no unscheduled opportunities to make adjustments and putting a premium on crew chiefs to tweak their cars for long, fast, green-flag runs.

Labonte’s crew calculated correctly with its adjustments on his last stop. Wallace’s team made the wrong call, not compensating for the change in track temperature as clouds gathered over IMS during the closing laps.

As a result, Wallace fought a tight-handling condition over his final fuel stint while Labonte’s Pontiac ripped around the 2.5-mile IMS oval like a slot car.

Labonte’s victory served as a major springboard for his sole Cup Series championship that season. He became the third consecutive Brickyard winner to also capture the series championship in the same season, following Jeff Gordon in 1998 and Dale Jarrett in 2000.

Wallace went on to finish second again at the Brickyard in 2002 – his third runner-up finish in 12 starts in this race. But he must look back at his dominant run in 2000 as the one that got away, and Labonte was the only heavyweight capable of knocking out Wallace on Aug. 5, 2000 at IMS.

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