Formula One
 Monday, September 4
Labonte leaves pits first, wins Southern 500
 Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Bobby Labonte cringed as the lightning crackled not far behind him and the rain came down in a torrent.

"You think I should sit by the window?" he asked.

Bobby Labonte
Bobby Labonte's journey through the Southern 500 began with a crash in practice Friday and ended with him holding the winner's trophy in victory lane Sunday.

With the luck he had Sunday, it figured he would be the last one to be struck. On the track, fate hit the others who had a chance to win the rain-shortened Southern 500.

But the weekend began ominously for the Winston Cup points leader, who crashed in practice Friday. He was the victim of a stuck throttle, the kind of mechanical failure believed responsible for the fatal crashes of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin this summer at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Labonte, who thought the high banking of Darlington Raceway reduced his speed, perhaps enabling him to walk away uninjured. "I said, 'Hey, I've got no broken shoulder blade.' I know how bad that is after last spring."

Labonte broke his shoulder when he wrecked at Darlington in March of 1999.

Although he escaped injury this time, the crash Friday forced Labonte to a backup Pontiac, and he qualified 37th.

"I didn't think we were going to win," he said. "We had a fifth-place car."

He didn't outrun anybody on the track, but the second of two very fast pit stops gave him the advantage he needed.

On that stop, he moved from fifth to first, spending less than 16 seconds in his pit on lap 322. Rain and darkness ended the Labor Day weekend classic under caution six laps later.

"I certainly think it shows the strength of our race team," said crew chief Jimmy Makar. "We had some obstacles thrown at us that were hard to overcome.

"We could very easily have come out here and finished fifth and been satisfied."

Defending champion Jeff Burton, who won twice last year in rain-shortened events at Darlington, finished second in a Ford. Next was the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt, who was seeking to tie David Pearson's track record of 10 victories.

Four-time Southern 500 winner Jeff Gordon was fourth in the race that lasted 6 hours, 16 minutes. That included a rain delay of 2:07 right after the start.

The victory extended Labonte's lead to 111 points over defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, who wound up fifth in his Ford. Sixth was the Pontiac of Ward Burton, who won at Darlington in March.

"It was just one of them days," Earnhardt said. "And then the rain clouds came from the right direction for the right guy."

Although he never thought he had enough to pull out the victory, Gordon was intrigued by all the developments of the race.

"It was bizarre," he said. "When the weather was as tricky as it was today, it keeps you guessing all afternoon. "Do you pit? Do you stay out?"

Jeff Burton figured Labonte had an advantage because of the location of his pit at the beginning of the road.

"He was able to come in faster than anybody else," Burton said. "We had a 14.5-second pit stop and we got beat out because of the pit position."

The race was as suspense-filled as it was lengthy, with both Burtons, Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Jarrett and polesitter Jeremy Mayfield having the look of winners should luck be with them. But it was with Labonte, who gave Pontiac only its second victory in 51 Southern 500s.

"You just never knew what was going to happen," Jarrett said.

Labonte won for the third time this season and 15th in his career. He led only twice for a total of 10 laps. Mayfield dominated, leading three times for 104 laps. But his day ended when he lost patience and hit the lapped car of Dave Marcis on lap 120.

"I was my fault," said Mayfield, so strong that he pulled away on each early restart and rode alone most of the time. "I took a couple of laps trying to get around him, thinking he'd give me a break, and he didn't."

The winner earned $198,180 from a purse of $2.6 million. His average speed in a race slowed for 69 laps by 10 caution flags was 108.275 mph. There were 22 lead changes among 15 drivers.

Kevin Lepage finished seventh, followed by Ricky Rudd, Tony Stewart and Steve Park.

Notes: Rain never seems to go away at Darlington

Southern 500 results

 Bobby Labonte goes from fourth to first on the last trip to the pits.
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 Check out Rusty Wallace's view of the inside wall.
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 Bobby Labonte says his crew won the Southern 500.
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 It was a roller coaster weekend for Bobby Labonte.
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 Pit stops were the deciding factor in Labonte's victory.
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 Jeff Burton explains what happened in the pits.
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 Jeff Gordon talks about his fourth-place finish.
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 Dale Jarrett on his race against Mother Nature.
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