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 Sunday, November 5
No. 3 team running out of time
 
 Associated Press

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Dale Earnhardt knows there isn't much time left to rally for an unprecedented eighth Winston Cup championship.

The Intimidator, having his best season since finishing second to Jeff Gordon in 1995, trails series leader Bobby Labonte by 201 points with just three races remaining.

"If we don't pick up some serious points Sunday, it's going to be just about impossible," Earnhardt said of the Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500. "Each race that goes by, it gets that much harder unless you're picking up 50 or 100 points a week."

Earnhardt, known for playing mind games with his opponents in the pressure-packed late stages of championship battles past, hasn't been able to make a dent in Labonte's cool, methodical approach to races.

The 36-year-old Labonte, whose only NASCAR title came in 1991 in the Busch Series, learned a lot of the lessons needed for taking the $3 million series championship by finishing second -- albeit a distant second -- to Dale Jarrett a year ago.

"Yeah, we watched Dale and the rest of the guys on his team just stay focused and consistent and keep doing just what they'd been doing all year," Labonte said. "That's exactly what we're trying to do. We don't want to change a thing until that last race in Atlanta is over with."

Going into Sunday's race, Labonte's Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs have 21 top-10 finishes -- 16 top-fives among them -- in 31 starts. Just as important, he has been running at the finish of every race.

"It's really hard to make up any ground when he's doing that," Earnhardt said. "But, you know, sometimes funny things happen in NASCAR. We'll go out there Sunday and try to win the race and see what happens.

"If we win and he has a problem, well ... it could get interesting in Homestead and Atlanta."

The 49-year-old Earnhardt won here in 1990, and has four other top-five finishes in 12 starts on the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway. Other than the late Davey Allison, no driver has won more than one Phoenix race.

Labonte's third-place finish last year -- he trailed teammate Tony Stewart and Mark Martin across the finish line -- was by far his best at Phoenix. In fact, his seven outings here include two finishes of 23rd and one of 37th.

"Phoenix hasn't been our best track, but we feel good about that third-place finish last year," Labonte said. "We have better race cars now than we had last year just by virtue of knowing more about them."

Labonte, who finished second at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and won at Atlanta Motor Speedway last year, needs only to finish 14th or better in each of the last three races this year to lock up the championship.

"We still have the same amount of confidence," he said. "That doesn't guarantee we're going to have an average finish of 2.0, like we had last year in the last three races. But we feel confident going to these racetracks that we'll be a contender, no matter what."

Rusty Wallace will start from the pole after setting a track qualifying record of 134.178 mph, with Jeff Burton -- third in the season standings, 251 points behind -- on the outside of the front row.

Labonte will start ninth, with Earnhardt 31st in the 43-car field.

"Starting position doesn't mean much here," said Earnhardt, whose seven championships match Richard Petty's career total. "We're happy with our car, and I think we'll be able to get to the front. We have to if we want to win a championship."
 


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Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500 Breakdown

Labonte rolls toward title

Wallace wins series-leading ninth pole of season

Checker Auto Parts/Dura-Lube 500 lineup