The 2000 Winston Cup Season
In 2000, "Silly Season" focused more on team changes than anything else. Ricky Rudd became 1999 Winston Cup Champion Dale Jarrett’s teammate when Rudd was selected to drive the same Texaco Havoline car previously driven by Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan. Jerry Nadeau became the teammate of Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte when a new sponsor for the third car on the team, Michael Holigan Homes, insisted Nadeau drive. Even Sterling Marlin gained a new teammate in the form of Kenny Irwin, Jr., whose potential for a first win was noticed by the team in 1999.
The competition also seemed to intensify in 2000. The amount of different winners in the season was increasing quicker than before, including the first two wins for Dale Earnhardt’s young son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who looked to be giving his Dad a run for his money in only his first season. The elder Earnhardt was also working towards a record-breaking eighth championship, hoping to gain ground on points leader Bobby Labonte as the season continued.
Unfortunately, a rash of three fatal on-track crashes during the season lingered on the minds of fans that year. These tragedies, each occurring separate from one another between May and October, took the lives of newcomer Tony Roper, expected 2001 Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin, Jr., Marlin’s new teammate. Investigators have since looked into advanced safety devices for race cars, one of which being "kill switches" which can prevent the car from hitting a wall hard if the throttle stuck; a scenario they believed to have caused the fatal wrecks.
In the next-to-last race of the season at Homestead, Bobby Labonte clinched his first Winston Cup championship, ending Earnhardt’s valiant bid for his first championship since 1994. Going into the final race of the year, the NAPA 500 in Atlanta, drivers and fans hoped to end on a high note what had been an incredibly turbulent season.