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Gordon: Leader has it together

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- The pressure keeps escalating for Bobby Labonte and his Joe Gibbs Racing team as they near their first Winston Cup championship.

Jeff Gordon, a three-time champion, remembers what it was like when he won his first title in 1995.

"Each week, the closer you get to that championship, the more you feel it," Gordon said. "You wake up in the morning and it's the first thing you think about. You go to sleep thinking about it. It's hard not to think about it."

Labonte enters today's Pop Secret Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway with a 210-point lead over seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt with four races left.

But Gordon, who has considerable respect for Labonte and crew chief Jimmy Makar, said last year's runners-up to Dale Jarrett are prepared to win the title.

"I think between Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte, and I guess you can throw me into that, over the last four or five years we've all been battling for championships," Gordon said. "I think they've got as much experience as anybody.

"Labonte's team is leading the pack and I think you're going to see them react the way they have all year long, and that's what got them to this point. ... They're more prepared than anybody else out there and I think it shows."

Labonte appreciates the kind words from Gordon but takes nothing for granted.

"The next couple of races will probably decide what happens," Labonte said. "All we can do is try to continue doing the same thing. I'll tell you what: I don't expect any letup from these guys."

So far, so good. Labonte qualified second, right behind pole-winner Jeremy Mayfield and just ahead of Gordon and Bill Elliott, for today's race. Earnhardt, who showed with his comeback victory Sunday in Talladega that he doesn't plan to make things easy for Labonte, will start 27th in the 43-car field.

"I would have preferred to start close to the front, but that doesn't really mean very much," Earnhardt said. "We're going to have to get up there and race with those guys, and that's what I expect to do.

"If we're going to catch them, we've got to be able to put some pressure on them. We've got to keep picking up points to do that."

The big obstacle on Rockingham's 1.017-mile oval is tire wear, thanks to the extremely abrasive and worn asphalt surface.

In the February race, Labonte, with worn tires, barely held off Earnhardt, who conserved his tires for a late run at the leader.

"This racetrack and Darlington just eat tires," said Ricky Rudd, who starts 13th today. "My theory is that two tracks have got sandy soil around them. The wind blows and it just polishes the racetrack and it loses grip."

Jeff Burton, third in the standings, starts sixth. He knows how important tire wear is on this track.

"The driver's got to be able to talk to his team and tell them what the car needs so you don't need to push it," Burton said. "If they can do that, and work together and make it happen, it'll save tires."

After nearly using up his last set of tires in February, Labonte might play things a bit differently.

"We're always learning and making adjustments on the way we do things," Labonte said. "You just don't want to change too much when things are working good. All I can say is we'll be ready when the green flag drops."

* * *

TODAY ON TV/RADIO: Pop Secret 400, 12:30 p.m., TNN; WQYK-AM 1010, WAMR-AM 1320.

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