Matt Kenseth’s First Cup Race with Joe Gibbs (1999)

Seth and Sutton Sharp

November 14, 2017

When Matt Kenseth won the 2013 Southern 500, many may have assumed that was his first time around the track in a Joe Gibbs Racing car. While his victory came in his first official race at Darlington for the team, in 1999 he wheeled the No. 18 around Darlington in relief of the injured Bobby Labonte.

On Friday morning, while behind the wheel of his Busch Grand National Series car, Bobby Labonte slammed the turn-two wall before coming to a rest by the inside wall. The impact fractured his right shoulder. “I don’t think I was unconscious, but I was hoping I would be before I hit again,” Labonte said. “I knew it was going to hurt.”.

Once the diagnosis was made, Labonte wasn’t even out of the infield care center before he knew the one driver that he wanted in his car. He told his crew-chief Jimmy Makar to go find Matt Kenseth.

After arrangements were made for Kenseth to serve in a substitute role for Labonte on Sunday, Kenseth had work to do on Saturday. Kenseth dominated the Diamond Hill Plywood 200, leading 97 of the 147 laps en-route to Victory Lane.

The win vaulted Kenseth to first in the Busch Series standings. “There are a lot of factors that go into winning a championship. We have the motor thing in control. The Dewalt Chevy ran really good. The guys had awesome pit-stops. It was a total team effort.”

With impending weather on the radar all of Sunday, the green flag wasn’t out for long before Mother Nature played a role in the race as the caution came out on lap-43 for rain. The caution was a huge break for the No. 18 team, as they could take their time executing the driver change. Labonte was pulled from the car by his crew as Kenseth, in a plain white fire suit, hopped in. Before the race could go green the rain started falling harder, bringing out the red flag.

During the pause in the action, Dr. Jerry Punch talked to Labonte about his day. Labonte said, “They worked on me earlier today and got the pain to the point where it was really good. It wasn’t really hurting that bad when I got in the car and I hate to get out, but we have to.”

Once the sun finally came out, Kenseth hopped back in Labonte’s No. 18. Makar was upbeat about the driver change, noting that the switch did not take them out of contention. “We just need to get the car home in one piece. We had the good Lord bless us with this rain to get Bobby out and Matt in, without losing a lot of laps. Matt did a great job for us during practice yesterday and I know he will do a great job for us.”

Makar’s words proved right as Kenseth brought the team home a 10th place finish, in a race shortened by rain.

Updated: May 16, 2018 — 10:33 pm

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