October 6, 2017
Seth and Sutton Sharp
The second half of the 1996 Winston Cup season featured a battle between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon, with the latter serving as the defending Series champion. As the two traded the points lead back and forth, Dale Jarrett hovered back in third.
After a disappointing 37th place finish at Indianapolis, Gordon turned it on and rolled off eight straight top-five finishes. He was almost unstoppable as the Series arrived at Charlotte for race 28 of the 31 race season, coming off six straight top-two finishes. After finishing second at Bristol, Gordon won at Darlington, finished second at Richmond and won at Dover, Martinsville and the final race at North Wilkesboro.
Over the same span, Labonte saw his 134 point lead in the standings disappear and turn into a 111 point defect, despite four top-five finishes of his own.
Qualifying at Charlotte for the UAW-GM Quality 500 looked to be more of the same for Gordon, as he put his No. 24 on the outside of the front row. Labonte struggled somewhat in qualifying, starting 16th.
On race day, Gordon led 14 of the first 31 laps but Labonte quickly seemed to be the car to watch. He took the lead by the 61st lap and went on to trade the lead back and forth with his brother Bobby and Ricky Craven throughout the middle stages of the event.
The 222nd lap of the race turned out to be the championship game breaker as Gordon made contact with the wall after help from Billy Standridge. At the same time, Gordon radioed in to his crew and told them that his water temperature was climbing at a severe rate.
When Gordon arrived in the pits, The Rainbow Warriors worked on the right-rear quarter panel of the No. 24 before sending him back on the track. He soon returned to the pits as the team put the hood up, with NASCAR holding handing Gordon a one lap penalty in the process.
TBS pit-reporter Steve Byrnes noted on the broadcast that things weren’t only hot under the hood of the No. 24. “The water temperature isn’t the only thing that is climbing, I have never seen Ray Evernham this upset. In fact, he radioed his spotter on the roof and said ‘Go tell the spotter of the No. 78 car that we are going to meet after the race.'”
As Gordon struggled with his car, Labonte stayed in contention throughout the latter portions of the race. He passed Jeff Burton for the lead on lap-308 and never looked back, taking the checkered flag in clutch fashion.
Labonte led 129 laps, the most on the day, earning him 185 crucial points. Gordon limped home in 31st. The drastic finishes of the two drivers allowed Labonte to gain 110 points on Gordon, leaving him one point behind with only three races remaining.
Gordon finished the season with a 12th, fifth and third, while Labonte capped off his win at Charlotte with two thirds and a fifth, earning Labonte his second career Winston Cup championship. He edged Gordon in the standings by 37 points, proving Charlotte to be the turning point in their historic championship battle.