The last NASCAR Cup Series race ever run at North Wilkesboro Speedway was the fall even in 1996. After the track was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) it was left off the NASCAR Cup Series schedule in favor of the newly built Texas Motor Speedway which held its first race the following year in 1997).
This change left a lot of traditionalists in the NASCAR fandom with a bad taste in their mouths. But now, after a 27-year absence from the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, North Wilkesboro is back, baby! But have you ever wondered what happened to all those drivers who finished up front in the 1996 race? Well, we at the Daily Downforce have got you covered. Here are the top-5 finishers of what was supposed to be the last race in the historic venue’s history and where they are now. Check it out!
5th: Terry Labonte
Bringing it home in 5th in that 1996 autumn afternoon was none other than the driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, the Iceman, Terry Labonte. The elder Labonte has had a long NASCAR career, holding the record for longest distance between his two Cup Series Championships, 1984 and 1996. That’s right, in the year that North Wilkesboro would run its final Cup Series races for the foreseeable future, Terry Labonte would win his second and final championship.
He was a threat early on the in the race but it seemed that his teammate, Jeff Gordon, just had him beat. Labonte would finish his competitive career at HMS, running his final season with the team part-time in a fifth No. 44 entry. Following his tenure at HMS, he would run part-time for a variety of back-marker teams. He would end his driving career in the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford in 2014, turning his final laps at the fall Talladega race.
These days, Texas Terry splits his time between his native Texas and North Carolina. In the Lonestar State, he owns a Chevrolet dealership with his former boss, the owner of his famed No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevy, Rick Hendrick. His time in NASCAR is also responsible for him launching his own marketing agency where he promotes and manages appearances of Tony the Tiger, his old mascot, still to this day.
During NASCAR’s 75 Anniversary Celebration, Terry Labonte was recognized as one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers.
4th: Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton in his No. 99 Ford for Roush Racing came in at the 4th position on the day of what was supposed to be the final Cup race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. After a falling out with team owner Jack Roush, Burton would leave the No. 99 team for Welcome, North Carolina’s Richard Childress Racing, where he would take over the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevy from Robbie Gordon.
At RCR, Burton would show some late career speed but would ultimately suffer bad luck, like most of the drivers before him that drove the number. After leaving RCR at the end of the 2013 season, Jeff Burton would run a couple of races for Michael Waltrip Racing and fill in a handful of times for an injured Tony Stewart in his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy. Burton would turn his final laps in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2014, driving for Stewart-Haas at Bristol. He would finish 15th.
After leaving his driving career behind him, Jeff Burton would lend his broadcasting talents to the NBC Sports booth, covering NASCAR during the second half of the season. In 2022, he also purchased the CARS Tour Late Model Series with his NBC Sports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and current NASCAR driver, Kevin Harvick.
He also cheers on his son, Harrison, who is now a NASCAR Cup Series driver in his own right, driving the legendary No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing. His son was there to surprise him to inform him that he made the NASCAR 75 Greatest Drivers List during pre-race at Talladega.
3rd: Dale Jarrett
Coming home in third that day is none other than Dale Jarrett. It was Dale Jarrett’s first year in his famed No. 88 Ford Credit Ford for Robert Yates Racing, and he won that year’s Daytona 500, the second of his career. Jarrett would stay on at RYR for several more years, winning a third Daytona 500 with the team as well as a championship in the year 1999. His final years with the team would be a struggle and he would later leave to join Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007.
With Jarrett being a former champion, he was guaranteed a starting position in 6 races due to his champion’s provisional, which turned out to be a much-needed asset to the new start-up team. Jarrett would turn his final laps with the organization in 2008, hanging up his driving gloves after that year’s All-Star race. David Reutimann would take over his MWR UPS No. 44 Toyota for the rest of the season and Dale Jarrett would become the young NASCAR hopeful’s driving coach.
Today, Dale Jarrett is a sports analyst for NBC Sports, taking over the pre- and post-race coverage. A few months ago, his current employer, NBC Sports, posted the video below–a flashback of Dale Jarrett’s first Daytona 500 victory in what has become known as the famous Dale and Dale show. He was also named as one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers this year.
2nd: Dale Earnhardt
From one Dale to another, it’s only appropriate that we now transition to ole Ironhead, or, more appropriately, The Man In Black, The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt. He would finish second that day and I’m sure he would describe himself as the highest finishing “man” in the field.
1996 saw the end of Dale’s outright dominance as a driver. He’d go on to finish 5th in that year’s points standings before seeing a career decline like he had never experienced before. In 1997, he went winless. In ’98, he would win the Daytona 500 but would struggle the rest of the season. ’99 was another winless season.
In 2000, though, Dale got a little pep in his step. While he only won two races on the year (a nail-biting thriller at Atlanta vs. Bobby Labonte) and the fall Talladega race where he showed them all WHY he was the King of plate racing, he would go on to finish second in the point standings that year to aforementioned Labonte.
2001 was looking to be his great comeback year, now that he got some of his mojo back and the team he owned, DEI, was starting to compete at a competitive level. All seemed as if it were right with the world in Earnhardt Country. Then tragedy would strike. Dale Earnhardt would lose his life in a fatal crash in turn four on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Rather than ending this section there, I’m going to throw it back to one of the greatest wins of his career, his last one at Talladega. RIP, Black Engine No. 3.
1996 North Wilkesboro Winner: Jeff Gordon
Last but certainly not least, the winner of the supposed final Cup race at North Wilkesboro was Jeff Gordon. In 1996, Jeff Gordon was only getting started. He was fresh off of winning his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 1995 and would win three more in 1997, 1998, and 2001, respectively. He would go on to win a total of 93 races at the Cup level.
He dabbled with team ownership in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and was a big advocator for Jimmie Johnson to enter the sport. Jeff Gordon would remain with Hendrick Motorsports throughout his Cup Series Career, retiring from full-time competition in 2015. He would return, however, for a handful of one-offs, subbing for an injured Dale Jr. His career would ultimately end with a 5th place finish in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevy at another old short track, Martinsville.
After his final laps as a driver, Gordon would test the waters of TV broadcasting, joining the FOX crew from 2015-2021. After feeling that it wasn’t a good match for him, Gordon would retire from the FOX booth, taking a position as the Executive Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports where he still works today. He was also named one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers.
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