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Formula One
News & Features
News & Features
News & Features
 Wednesday, March 1
Labonte never lets up at the Rock news services


ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- During the brief winter lull between Winston Cup seasons, Bobby Labonte was nervous about maintaining his team's momentum.

He didn't have to worry.

Labonte, the series runner-up, finished 1999 with 10 straight finishes of eighth or better, including a victory in the final race in Atlanta. That all added up to big championship hopes in 2000.

"I kept asking (crew chief) Jimmy (Makar), 'Can we get back on track? Can we get back on track?' You never know what competition is going to have for you," Labonte said Sunday after outrunning Dale Earnhardt to win the Dura-Lube/Kmart 400 at North Carolina Speedway.

  • As easy as Bobby Labonte made things look over the final 100 miles, his No. 18 Pontiac wasn't nearly as strong over the first half of the race. But once Labonte took his first lead on lap 242, he was the car to beat. He led from lap 281 until the end. Labonte fought a "push" in the corners over the first 200 miles. Crew chief Jimmy Makar made two minor adjustments, however, during the final two pit stops. Labonte then took care of his tires, built a big enough lead to keep Dale Earnhardt at bay, and ultimately plow through the field to Victory Lane.
    The best action of the day came over laps 221 through 242 when the lead changed hands four times between five drivers. It started when Jeff Gordon took the lead away from Steve Park on lap 221, held off Jeff Burton for a eight laps, then fell all the way back to fifth when Jeff Burton, Ward Burton, Bobby Labonte and Sterling Marlin rolled by the No. 24. Jeff Burton held the lead for all of one lap before his brother overtook him. Ward's lead lasted all of 11 laps before Labonte took away the top spot and held it for the next 20 laps.
  • Dale Jarrett finished fifth, but remained on top of the Winston Cup points standings -- a spot he's held since May 15, 1999.
    1. Dale Jarrett, 340
    2. Bobby Labonte, 335
    3. Ward Burton, 312
    4. Mark Martin, 307
    5. Rusty Wallace, 295
  • As well as Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt ran in their Daytona debuts, the Rock took its toll on both Sunday. Kenseth brushed the wall early and limped home 37th. Little E also drove a dented Chevy after Dave Marcis clipped him coming off Turn 4. Earnhardt finished 19th.
  • Bobby Hamilton had a top-five car -- if not a winning ride -- until his second ignition box failed on lap 136. Hamilton led 46 early laps before finishing 40th.
  • Only four cars -- Labonte, Earnhardt, Ward Burton and Tony Stewart -- finished on the lead lap. That's the fewest at Rockingham since 1996 when seven cars finished every lap.
  • Eyes were on the sky all afternoon, as the sun moved behind storm clouds with under 100 laps remaining. But a steady rain didn't begin to fall until 10 minutes after Bobby Labonte took the checkered flag.
  • Now, after the first two races of the season, Labonte finds himself in a familiar position, running second to 1999 champion Dale Jarrett in the standings, although he trails by just five points.

    "To win this early is exciting," said Labonte, who started the season with a sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500, despite some problems in the pits. "I'm not going to sleep tonight, to be honest with you."

    Labonte said he knows people will start asking him about a possible championship now, but he said, "I'm not even thinking about that. All I'm worried about is today. Tomorrow, we'll worry about tomorrow."

    On Sunday, his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac was overpowering, helping General Motors turn the table on Ford.

    Labonte hung with the leaders throughout the 393-lap race and finally began to show his power when he took the lead on lap 242.

    Pontiacs and Chevrolets swept the top four positions just a week after the top Ford Tauruses caused an uproar about a supposed aerodynamic advantage by taking the first five spots in Daytona.

    As dull as the race was in Daytona, Sunday's show was exciting throughout, with 22 lead changes among 10 drivers and plenty of position changes all the way to the back of the pack.

    With the final 196 laps on the 1.017-mile oval run without a caution flag, Labonte took control. He came out of the final round of pit stops by the leaders ahead just ahead of Earnhardt's Chevrolet and steadily pulled away.

    By lap 364, Labonte's lead was more than six seconds. At that point, crowd favorite Earnhardt began to close in, chopping tenths of a second off on every lap.

    It appeared for a while he would catch the leader, but Labonte was able to weave his way through heavy traffic, keeping Earnhardt's black No. 3 at bay.

    The two leaders broke free of traffic four laps from the end, but it was too late. Earnhardt came across the finish line 1.068 seconds -- about 10 car-lengths -- behind Labonte.

    "He was coming on pretty strong at the end, but we had built enough cushion that we were able to hold him off," Labonte said. "I wouldn't have wanted that race to be much longer.

    "The crew got me out of the pits ahead of Earnhardt on that last pit stop and that was a big help. Dale's car was just better the last 20 laps or so of a run and we had to keep him back there. We knew that he could gain ground on us."

    Earnhardt, who finished in the top five at Rockingham for the first time since he won this event in 1996, said the race came down to tire wear on the worn and abrasive asphalt track.

    "A lot of other guys were taking off and burning up their tires early. I sort of saved my tires early in the runs," said the seven-time Winston Cup champion. "It was all tire management. I just needed a few more laps.

    "But he got too far out front and we just couldn't get back to him."

    Bobby Labonte
    Bobby Labonte won the 13th Winston Cup race of his career on Sunday.

    Labonte credited his crew for getting the car up front with a lot of hard work.

    "Jimmy can vouch that we worked really hard on the setup today," Labonte said. "This track is really temperamental. We were too loose, then too tight, and then we really got it freed up. But I don't know what perfect is here."

    Ward Burton's Pontiac was third, followed closely by the Grand Prix of Tony Stewart, last year's top rookie and Labonte's teammate.

    "If we keep knocking on the door, we'll get us one," Burton said.

    "We got down a lap early and kept working on it to get back in the lead lap," Stewart said. "The driver probably hurt us a little today. We at least have a good starting point for the Fall race now. I think Bobby and Earnhardt and those guys made a lot of improvements after that. We couldn't get it quite right, but we were pretty good today."

    Labonte, who finished sixth in Daytona, behind defending series champion Dale Jarrett, moved to second in the standings. He's five points behind Jarrett, who finished a lap down in fifth on Sunday.

    Labonte, who picked up his first win in Rockingham and the 13th of his Winston Cup career, averaged 127.875 mph. That broke the event record of 125.927, set by Jeff Gordon in February 1997.

    Gordon, who had won three of the last six races here, wound up 10th after making up two lost laps with the help of an early caution flag.

    In all, there were four caution flags for a total of 21 laps. All but one of the 43 starters were running at the end. Rookie Jeff Fuller out after hitting the wall on lap 188.

    The race was run without interruption from the weather. Rain, which had been forecast, began falling just 10 minutes after the checkered flag waved.

    Notebook: Fords aren't so tough at the Rock

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