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2nd car carries Labonte

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000


DARLINGTON, S.C. -- If Bobby Labonte ends up winning the Winston Cup championship this season, his victory in the Southern 500 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway might be a defining moment.

A stuck accelerator caused Labonte to wreck and demolish his primary car Friday, forcing the team to work frantically to salvage the weekend with a backup car.

"We just never lost focus," Labonte said. "We figured that we just needed to run the best we can. Our thought process coming in here is no matter what goes on, we're going to do the best we can and worry about everything else at the end of the day."

Throughout the event, his No. 18 Pontiac proved good enough for a top-10 finish. But smart pit decisions, a 14.8-second pit stop late and a little luck gave Labonte the lead six laps from the finish and led to the rain-shortened victory.

"I certainly think it shows the strength of our race team," crew chief Jimmy Makar said. "We had some obstacles thrown at us that were going to be hard to overcome and I think what it proved is that we've got a great race team that's got a lot of dedicated individuals that can rise to the occasion when it's called for."

HIRED HANDS: A botched pit stop led to the removal of two crew members from Jeff Burton's team early in the Southern 500.

Burton, who started 35th, had worked his way into the top 10 after 34 laps, but dropped to 20th after two new crew members struggled changing tires.

Crew chief Frank Stoddard recruited two members of Mike Skinner's pit crew -- Skinner was retired from the race -- before the team's next pit stop on Lap 78.

The results were immediate. Burton was in 10th after his first stop with the replacement crew.

"They tried real hard, they just didn't have enough time to practice and we felt like it was real important to have good pit stops and after that first stop we elected to make a change there," said Burton, who finished second.

"You hate to do that because everybody tries as hard as they can try, but this is professional sports and when you've got a young guy that you think is going to be a good receiver, but he's not doing a good job on that day, you sit him down and let him think about it and he'll come back stronger the next day. That's what we did today."

RAIN: Sunday's race was the third in four events at Darlington to be shortened by rain.

"Darlington has started to have a lot of rain problems the last several years and it's dictated finishes of the race several times," seven-time Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt said.

Burton swept both races in the rain last year at Darlington. His brother, Ward, won the spring race under threatening skies.

PIT STOPS: Rusty Wallace's bid to win a third consecutive race ended with a 30th-place finish after he was involved in a four-car wreck on Lap 251 of 328. ... Labonte wasn't the only driver who fared well in a backup car. Kevin Lepage, who crashed in practice Saturday, finished seventh in the No. 16 Ford. It was his third Top 10 this season and first since April2. ... Since winning his first career race on Aug. 13, Steve Park has two top-10 finishes in a row. He was 10th in the Southern 500. ... With 10 races left, Labonte's 101-point lead on Dale Jarrett ties the largest of the season. At this point last year, Jarrett led Mark Martin by 168 points.

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