Throwback Thursday – The Winston Cup Era Comes To A Close

Bobby Labonte at RIR in 2002. Photo Credit: John Harrelson/ Harrelson Photography RIR
Bobby Labonte at RIR in 2002. Photo Credit: John Harrelson/ Harrelson Photography RIR

Posted by Brandon Whitton – follow on twitter @whittonbm

2003 Ford 400 – Homestead-Miami Speedway – November 16, 2003

The 2003 season concluded its 36 race odyssey for the second consecutive year in sunny South Florida. Drivers arrived to a newly configured racetrack, the second such time the facility underwent a facelift since original groundbreaking in August 1993. The flat sweeping corners were replaced with higher progressive banking to create a multi-groove track; something the previous track configuration was incapable of providing.  Matt Kenseth came into the new Homestead already on vacation as the newly crowned Winston Cup Champion. Thanks to a fourth place finish in Rockingham the week prior, Kenseth locked down the first Cup championship for himself and longtime owner Jack Roush, leading Johnson by 226 points. The weekend also proved as a further changing of the guard for NASCAR. Homestead would mark the last event for long time manufacturer Pontiac who would pull out of the series come season’s end. The final hold out, MB2 Motorsports would switch to Chevrolet the following season. Also coming to an end was NASCAR’s relationship with championship sponsor, Winston. Due to strict regulations on tobacco advertising, coupled with several messy legal disputes, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company would part ways with the sport after 33 mutually beneficial years. This would leave the door open to cellular phone company Nextel taking sponsorship duties and introducing the controversial ‘Chase for the Cup’ in 2004.

With the series crown already awarded, a battle was taking place for the runner up position. Only 167 points and one million dollars in championship prize money separated second place Jimmie Johnson from sixth place Kevin Harvick, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon sandwiched between.

Jamie McMurray qualified on the pole with a speed of 181.111 MPH. Bobby Labonte started second, with Brian Vickers, Newman and Gordon rounding out the top 5.

Fresh off his Busch Series Championship from the day before, Vickers took the early lead and began to gap the field, until Harvick, Newman and Kurt Busch wrecked off turn 2 on the fourth lap. The accident destroyed Newman’s car, costing him an opportunity to be series runner up. Busch’s car was also destroyed, dropping him from tenth to eleventh in the final series standings.

Following the brief caution, racing resumed albeit not for long. The engine in Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 DeWalt Ford blew up, dropping him out of the race and to a last place finish. Relegated to role of spectator, Kenseth had to wait a few hours to officially celebrate his championship.

After the caution period for Kenseth’s blown engine, several drivers including Jimmy Spencer, Johnson, Rusty Wallace and Johnny Benson took their turn up front on the new high banks. On lap 47, Bill Elliott took the lead and proved to be the car to beat. Elliott, the 1988 Series Champion, was in the midst of a late career surge. The veteran was victorious at Rockingham the week before, and looked to close out the season strong to secure his ride for the 2004 campaign.

Elliott had essentially no serious competition the rest of the event, leading 189 of the next 220 laps. As he took the white flag with closest competitor Bobby Labonte half a second behind. A cruel twist of fate found Elliott exiting turn 2. His car wiggled, slowed, and began to litter the track with sheet metal; the signs of a flat right tire snatching victory from the 48 year old veteran. Labonte carefully passed the wounded Dodge, and cruised to his 21st and final Cup victory by 1.749 seconds over Harvick with Johnson, Benson and Gordon completing the top five.  With the third place finish, Johnson secured second place in the final season standings ultimately finishing 90 points behind Kenseth.

“I said two laps before that I said ‘He’s just playing with me’, he was going wide open”, Labonte said in victory lane. “He came off turn two and that thing wiggled… and I couldn’t believe it man, I absolutely couldn’t believe it. Things went our way today, finally”. A disappointed but upbeat Elliott said, “We had a great racecar. Our Dodge ran so well today, it’s an unfortunate thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever won them like that but I’ve sure lost them like that”. Elliott was optimistic about returning to drive full time in the 2004 season, but was ultimately replaced by rookie Kasey Kahne.