Formula One
 Sunday, October 8
Labonte's finish too strong for Mayfield
 Associated Press


CONCORD, N.C. -- Sharing laughs and whispers with his crew chief, the usual businesslike Bobby Labonte seemed completely at ease.

And why shouldn't he?

He picked up his fourth victory of the season Sunday, and opened up his biggest lead in the race for the Winston Cup championship.

  • Well, tires -- or lack thereof -- were the focus heading into race weekend, and it was the final pit-stop tire strategy that pushed the No. 18 past Jeremy Mayfield with six to go and into victory lane. Of course, starting in the front row and running strong all day doesn't hurt, especially when accidents taking out three cars running in the top 10 happen behind you.
  • 22-year old Kurt Busch, who has three wins and is currently ranked third in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series standings, made his third Winston Cup start of the year and took home a 13th-place finish.
  • Bobby Labonte's tail lights are barely visible at this point, as he holds a season-high 252-point lead. Jeff Burton jumped ahead of Dale Earnhardt to take over the No. 2 spot. DJ remained in fourth, and just five points separate Tony Stewart and Ricky Rudd for fifth.
    1. Bobby Labonte, 4,405
    2. Jeff Burton, 4,153
    3. Dale Earnhardt, 4,147
    4. Dale Jarrett, 4,017
    5. Tony Stewart, 3,977
  • Jerry Nadeau and his teammate -- y'know, that No. 24 guy? -- were primed for a strong showing in Charlotte after Jeff Gordon, the defending champ, won the pole and Nadeau qualified third. But Gordon's day essentially ended when he hit Jarrett's spun car on lap 159, and Nadeau, who had led 32 laps and was working his way back toward the front after taking a penalty for speeding on pit road, hit the wall trying to avoid Mike Skinner after the No. 31 was loosened up by Kurt Busch. Maybe we should rethink that High Five ...
  • Matt Kenseth kept his hold on the rookie race lead with a ninth-place finish, 10 spots in front of Junior. Dave Blaney was the only other diaper dandy to pick up significant points, finishing 28th. Stacey Compton and Scott Pruett didn't qualify, but Mike Bliss wasn't much better. An accident took out the No. 27 in lap 5.
  • "I'd pretty much say so, yeah." -- Dale Jarrett, when asked if he thought he was out of the points race.
  • "We had a bad pit stop that put us dead last. Then the No. 97 (Kurt Busch), I don't know what he was thinking. He just pile-drived the No. 31 car. I was on the outside and didn't have anywhere to go. When I was a rookie, I tried to show a lot of respect out there." -- Jerry Nadeau, on the premature end to his race.
  • Labonte convinced crew chief Jimmy Makar to give him four fresh tires on the final pit stop of the UAW-GM Quality 500, and rode the new set to victory.

    Afterward, the two could hardly hide their excitement.

    "We're just enjoying life right now," Labonte said. "It's not going to be like this forever, so we'll enjoy it while it lasts. Today was a great day and we plan to celebrate it."

    In sixth before the final stop, Labonte took the four new tires 25 laps from the finish. Leader Jeremy Mayfield only took two, and Labonte motored past him with six laps to go to easily win for the fourth time this season.

    His Pontiac beat Mayfield's Ford to the finish line at Lowe's Motor Speedway by 1.166 seconds.

    "That No. 12 car was fast, but the four Goodyears were a little better," Labonte said. "I kind of made that decision. I said we're going to go four tires because it was one of those deals where we knew it was our only chance."

    Makar never doubted his driver's decision to take on four new tires, even though five of the cars racing in the Top 10 took only two.

    "He's a great little race car driver, he never gives up," Makar said. "He's always thinking, always digging, he just never gives up on anything."

    With the win, Labonte opened the lead to 252 points -- his largest of the season -- in a bid for his first championship. He needs only to finish ninth or better in each of the remaining five races to win the championship regardless of how any other driver does.

    Mayfield finished second, and was followed by Ricky Rudd, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin in a race that had a season-high 46 lead changes among 13 drivers.

    The track record for lead changes was 47, set in 1974, and the previous season high was 30 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March.

    Jeff Burton finished sixth to flip spots with Dale Earnhardt in the race to catch Labonte in the standings. Earnhardt, now third, finished 11th to fall 258 points behind Labonte.

    "Some or closest competitors didn't have a good as day as we did, so you really have to be thankful because the roles could be reversed at another race track," Labonte said.

    A feared tire shortage never came into play because Goodyear provided two truckloads of new rubber before the start of the race.

    Goodyear initially thought it might not have enough tires on hand because hundreds had been thrown away after failing a quality-control test. But each team had the standard nine sets of tires when the green flag dropped.

    The abundance did nothing to help Mayfield, who chose not to use the extras in his pit on the final pit stop.

    In a tight battle with Rudd for the lead, Mayfield went into the pits in second place when the ninth and final caution flag of the race came out for debris on the track on lap 307.

    Mayfield changed only two tires during the stop and was the first car back out on the track. But Labonte's tire choice proved to be the right one, and he steadily closed in on Mayfield.

    "It was a last-minute decision," Mayfield said. "We felt like there were so many cars on the lead lap that a lot of guys were going to put on two. We felt like if you put on four and lost track position, you weren't going to win the race."

    The last caution ended up hurting Rudd the most. After leading a race-high 98 laps, Rudd dropped to sixth place after the caution and never again challenged for the lead.

    Dale Jarrett
    Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Ted Musgrave and Dale Jarrett tangle heading into turn 4.
    "I didn't think that last caution should be put out," Rudd said. "I didn't see anything on the race track. I didn't want to see that caution, so I'm a little bitter."

    Dale Jarrett's hopes for a second straight championship were all but lost on the 159th of 334 laps. Jarrett was running ninth when Rusty Wallace tapped the rear of his car and sent him spinning into the wall heading into turn four.

    "I can't describe the frustration," Jarrett said. "You know, you work hard and you get a good race car and then things don't go your way."

    His car was heavily damaged and was towed off the track. Jarrett, who trailed Labonte by 251 points before the race, finished 40th and now trails him by 388.

    With only five races remaining, Jarrett now has almost no shot at catching Labonte. Asked if he was out of the points race, Jarrett said: "I'd pretty much say so, yeah."

    Defending race champion Jeff Gordon, the polesitter, also was knocked out in that accident. He couldn't avoid hitting Jarrett as he tried to maneuver through the traffic and finished 39th.

    "I just saw someone spinning ahead of me," Gordon said. "I expected it all to slide to the bottom, but there was nothing but smoke so I couldn't see anything."

    The race was slowed nine times by 51 laps of caution. That limited Labonte's average speed to 133.630 mph.

    Notes: Kenseth's Busch win upheld

     Matt Yocum talks with UAW-GM Quality 500 winner and series points leader Bobby Labonte.
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     With the quality of cars in the field, Jeremy Mayfield felt it was anybody's race.
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     Ricky Rudd's quest for the checkered flag was denied by a caution late in the race.
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     Tony Stewart says the biggest challenge Sunday was dealing with the tire setup.
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     After moving to No. 2 in the points race, Jeff Burton's not sure he wants to be there.
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