By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
LOUDON, N.H. -- NASCAR's decision to require restrictor plates in the Dura Lube 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway didn't affect Bobby Labonte during qualifying Saturday.
The Winston Cup points leader won his third pole of the season and 21st of his career with a lap of 127.632 mph. Labonte's speed was just 2 mph off Rusty Wallace's pole-winning lap last season.
"I think it's real important (to start up front), not just for pit position but for the chance that we can start up front and see how it is," said Labonte, who has a 158-point advantage. "If it is tough to pass, definitely the position to start with is good."
NASCAR opted to use the restrictor plates in an attempt to slow cars after two fatalities at the 1.058-mile track earlier this year.
"You're really searching around," said seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who will start 37th. "We're just sort of shooting in the dark."
Jeff Burton, who tested last week at the Milwaukee Mile, qualified second (127.227 mph), followed by Sterling Marlin (127.108), Dale Jarrett (127.074) and Wallace (126.973).
"Any time we make first round, we're generally happy," said Burton, a three-time winner at New Hampshire. "For that matter, any time we don't use a provisional here we're generally happy."
HAPPY HOUR: When Ricky Craven drives at New Hampshire, his popularity soars.
The Newburg, Maine, native qualified 12th for the Dura Lube 300 and was the fastest driver during final practice with a lap of 125.314 mph.
"It's always good to be home," said Craven, 45th in the standings. "We led some laps at the first part of the race (in July). We're focusing on leading the last part of the race tomorrow. It's always a big boost coming home."
THROTTLE PROBLEMS: Twenty-four minutes into the final practice, Dale Earnhardt Jr. radioed to his crew complaining of a stuck accelerator, the problem believed to have caused accidents that killed Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin earlier this year.
Earnhardt did not report the problem after that.
SEASON BESTS: Marlin, Mike Bliss (10th) and Ted Musgrave (11th) posted their season-best qualifying efforts. "I'm pretty pumped," Bliss said. "I didn't think we'd be that good. ... This is good for us. We've been struggling."
Steve Grissom and Dave Marcis failed to qualify.
BUSCH HIRED: Craftsman Truck series driver Kurt Busch will drive the No. 97 Ford for Roush Racing in seven of the last eight races this season and full time next year.
Because of a conflict with his truck schedule, Busch will not drive Oct. 15 in the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
"We know that we have something special in Kurt Busch," team owner Jack Roush said. "We needed to get him some time behind the wheel of a Winston Cup car this year."