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Tuesday, August 14
Labonte tired of endless speculation
Associated Press

Bobby Labonte
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- There's one Winston Cup champion who doesn't expect surprises when NASCAR releases its report next week on Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in February.

"I feel pretty sure I understand and know what happened," said Bobby Labonte, the 2000 series champion who tested at Darlington Raceway on Monday. "All this has done from February until now is made me read the paper less and believe less what other people say."

Labonte, who drives with a head and neck restraint system, thinks his colleagues and rival teams long ago determined how to respond after Earnhardt's crash, which took place on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and followed the racing deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper in 2000.

What comes out of NASCAR's official investigative report in Atlanta on Aug. 21, Labonte says, probably won't affect what's already happened in the garage.

"We've taken the safety measurements on our parts, drivers parts, crew chiefs, car owners, to make it better," Labonte said. "You can always make it better, but we don't need an expert to tell us that. That has already started trouble before."

Soon after Earnhardt's death, Daytona International Speedway physician Steve Bohannon said he thought a broken seat belt found in Earnhardt's cockpit allowed the driver's head to strike the steering wheel. The force of the blow cracked the base of his skull and caused massive head injuries, Bohannon said.

However, The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that NASCAR's investigation will not blame the seat belt for Earnhardt's death.

Petty and Irwin, like Earnhardt, died from skull fractures caused by a whipping motion of the head at the moment of impact. Roper died from massive head injuries.

Labonte sounded weary after the months of questions about the accident, whose aftermath has dominated and clouded NASCAR's season.

Earnhardt was third on the last lap of the season's first race when he rammed the wall at full force. And the speculation of the accident's cause has been almost as regular as the weekly race tributes for the fallen seven-time Winston Cup champion.

That led Labonte, a chatty, polite, 37-year-old, to put down the newspaper and flick off the television shows that piped up opinions without, he thought, too many facts.

"I try not to speculate. Fact is fact," he said. "Speculation is horse crap."

Labonte's crew chief, Jimmy Makar, said car owner Joe Gibbs didn't hesitate in checking every aspect of safety for his teams including restraint devices and seat-belt positioning. Besides Labonte, Gibbs owns Tony Stewart's No. 20 car.

"It's something we always want to do," Makar said.

Makar said it will be good to have the official stamp from the sanctioning body on what happened to Earnhardt. "That needs to be done," the crew chief said.

But he said teams didn't wait for official word before improving car safety.

"I think just about everybody's changed how they've done their driver's cockpit," Makar said. "Things we took for granted for so long, we never knew that something like that could happen. It has made us all more aware."

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