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Labonte goes from wrecked to winner

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 2000


DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The weekend could not have started off worse for Bobby Labonte.

Trying to extend his lead in the Winston Cup standings, he hit a concrete wall first thing Friday at Darlington Raceway. Forced to go to a backup car, Labonte needed a provisional to make the Southern 500.

But Sunday, 20 years after his brother Terry won the same race, Labonte capped a dismal weekend with a surprising victory in the rain.

Labonte used a quick pit stop and led what turned out to be the final six laps, following the pace car's headlights through darkness and a downpour that ended the event 39 laps short of its scheduled distance.

It was his first win at Darlington, 15th of his career and third this season.

"We didn't have something for some guys and couldn't outrun them," said Labonte, who never led under green-flag conditions. "Thank goodness we were able to go wild (during pit stops) and we worked on it and got it a little better every time. We still weren't faster than about four or five cars. We had about a fifth-place car today and won the race."

Jeff Burton finished second followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ward Burton. The race ended more than six hours after it started because of two rain delays.

"What Bobby and his team have done all year long is take advantage of the positions that they've been put in, and they did that again today," Jeff Burton said. "They've made very few mistakes."

Friday, the accelerator on Labonte's primary car stuck -- a problem believed to have caused Kenny Irwin's and Adam Petty's fatal crashes at New Hampshire -- and sent Labonte's car into the wall in Turn 3.

"We knew this car was good, but we knew the primary car was going to be better," Labonte said. "We had a lot of practice in it. I tell you what, it took me about half the race of running toward the wall. I really didn't want to hit the wall."

The victory extended his lead in the standings to 111 points over Jarrett and came at the expense of a slow pit stop by Ward Burton.

Burton, who won the Mall.com 500 in March at Darlington and started third, was seconds away from completing the Darlington sweep this season.

He passed his younger brother, who swept both Darlington races last year, on Lap 261 and held the lead until Lap 302 when the leaders took advantage of a caution for oil on the track to make final pit stops.

Burton's 17.7-second stop for four tires and gas was fast but not fast enough as he exited in sixth place. Labonte's stop was 14.8 seconds.

Burton complained other cars slowed him down on his way to his pit stall.

"They (the drivers who beat him off pit road) are speeding right before they get into their box," said Burton, who led twice for 59 laps and finished sixth. "Obviously NASCAR has been watching us for some of the things that have happened of late.

"But we didn't have a good pit stop. We had a 17-some-second pit stop and that cost us the race right there."

Labonte was fifth before he stopped for four tires and no fuel. He drove off pit road first followed by Jeff Burton, Earnhardt, Gordon and Jarrett.

When the field cycled around, Labonte was first and stayed there for the six laps before rain cut the race short.

"There at the end, we weren't praying for rain again," Labonte said. "We thought we were going to go racing. Then when it started drizzling a little bit I thought, "Oh, this could be good.' And it was. I've seen Jeff Burton do it here, so why not?"

Both of Burton's wins here in '99 were rain-shortened. Though there were 22 lead changes among six drivers, the first 118 laps belonged to Jeremy Mayfield, who showed his pole-winning car was worthy of going wire-to-wire.

But even the fastest car couldn't make up for a mistake by its driver.

Mayfield closed in on Dave Marcis' lapped car but could not get around. After two laps of trying, Mayfield tried to make the pass in Turn 2.

He accelerated on the inside and edged ahead of Marcis, but not far enough.

"He wouldn't cut me any slack," Mayfield said.

As he exited the turn and tried get ahead of Marcis, his rear bumper clipped the nose of Marcis' camouflage car.

The contact was light but it immediately turned Mayfield's car into the outside wall, peeling back sheet metal on the right fender and twisting the right front tire.

"I just hate we have to give it to somebody else," said Mayfield, who led three times for 104 laps. "That's about the third or fourth (win) we've given away this year. I should have waited. I took a couple laps trying to get around him thinking he'd give me a break and he didn't. I should have known better. It's my fault."

Gearhead stats

TIME OF RACE: 4 hours, 8 minutes, 17 seconds.

MARGIN OF VICTORY: Under caution.

AVERAGE SPEED: 108.275 mph.

LEADERS: Jeremy Mayfield Grid-35, Dave Marcis 36-47, Darrell Waltrip 48, Mayfield 49-79, Chad Little 80, Mayfield 81-118, Mark Martin 119-138, Jimmy Spencer 139-140, Marcis 141, Jeff Gordon 142-165, Martin 166-174, Dale Earnhardt 175-178, Dale Jarrett 179-181, Earnhardt 182-224, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 225-240, Bobby Labonte 241-244, Jeff Burton 245-260, Ward Burton 261-302, J.Burton 303, Rick Mast 304, Ken Schrader 305, W.Burton 306-322, Labonte 323-328.

LEAD CHANGES: 22 among 15 drivers.

TOP ROOKIE: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th.

Up next

Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400, Richmond (Va.) International Speedway.

TV: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN.

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