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Monday, September 1
Mixed bag for Hendrick at Darlington
By Mike Massaro
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- For the past 54 year's NASCAR's boys of summer have rung in the month of September with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. That tradition came to an end Sunday but it was a fitting conclusion. An old school Southerner rekindled past glory, his win helped set a new record and there were plenty of highs and lows throughout the afternoon.
Surprise of the day: Don't call it a comeback, he's been here for years -- he just hadn't been to victory lane since 1999. Terry Labonte finally snapped a 156-race winless streak Sunday, winning what will forever be known as the last 'true' Southern 500.
"I think this is the biggest one," said Labonte comparing Sunday's win to the other 21 in his career. "I can't think of anything bigger than this win here."
Ironically, in 1978 Labonte made his first career Winston Cup start at Darlington Raceway. Two years later his first win also came at the 'Track Too Tough To Tame.'
Don't be surprised if this is the start of a hot streak for Texas Terry. Next up is Richmond, where he won the pole and led 30 laps in the spring.
Statistic of the race: With Labonte's win on Sunday, car owner Rick Hendrick became the first car owner during the modern era (dating back to 1972) to place four different cars in victory lane in the same season. Jeff Gordon (Martinsville), Jimmie Johnson (Charlotte) and Joe Nemechek (Richmond) were the other drivers who helped secure this record.
This season Jack Roush has won with three different cars. By season's end he has the potential to not only match but also break Hendrick's record. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle have each scored wins, while Roush Racing veterans Mark Martin and Jeff Burton have been shut out so far in 2003.
Hard luck award: Ryan Newman led 120 laps and was in contention to win his sixth race of the season before he accidentally hit the kill switch.
Newman's car instantly stalled on pit road during a round of yellow flag pit stops. The Alltel team repeatedly tried to re-fire the engine by pushing the car off pit lane and spraying ether into the carburetor.
The team's efforts were tireless but futile. During each attempt to restart the car, they pushed Newman nearly forty yards until they got to the pit road exit, a boundary which by rule required the team to push the car all the way back to their pit stall and repeat the process following each failure.
It wasn't until Newman lost eight laps when he realized what had actually happened. He picked up five additional bonus points for leading the most laps but he finished 23rd, eight laps down.
Championship turning point: In the midst of yellow flag pit stops around lap 150, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left pit road and then rolled to a stop on the apron of Turn 1. A broken drivetrain forced the Budweiser Chevrolet behind the wall for 11 laps.
"Not much you can do about that," said a disappointed Earnhardt Jr. "Just kind of poor maintenance or somebody building the car didn't do something right.
Earnhardt Jr. finished the day 25th, nine laps down.
"It's a tough deal but those things are gonna happen," Junior added. "We just have to stay positive because we might have lost the championship. We got to be a good race team and the main thing is to keep your head up."
Meanwhile, pointa leader Matt Kenseth finished 14th and extended his lead to 389 points.
Disappointment of the day: Jeff Gordon entered the day hoping to make history. Gordon started 14th and was seeking his sixth Southern 500 victory, a mark that would have broken a tie between him and Cale Yarborough on the all time list.
However, Gordon was caught up in a lap 165 crash when Casey Mears clipped the front end of the DuPont Chevrolet sending Gordon spinning. A multi-car crash ensued.
The 24 team mended the car and Gordon nursed it across the finish line 32nd.
Hard Chargers of the race: Bill Elliott started 22nd and picked up 17 spots to finish fifth. Jeff Burton started 28th and picked up 17 positions to finish 11th. Kevin Harvick started 18th and picked up 16 spots to finish second.
Free fall of the race: Johnny Benson started 11th but finished 40th. He was involved in an accident on lap 165.
Iron Man of the race: Just past the halfway point, Ricky Rudd lost power steering. He drove more than 200 miles on one of the most physically demanding race tracks using nothing but brute force.
"I'm pretty well used up," said Rudd. "I've lost power steering before but it was I guess a belt slipped and I still had a little power assist. But today it took about 50 pounds of force to turn the wheel every time so it was tough."
Rudd managed to finish the day 16th and stayed on the lead lap.
Quote of the day: "Whatever I've done to make the racing gods mad at me, I've really done it this time. It just won't let up." -- Mark Martin after two consecutive races in which he's had a very competitive car damaged as a result of a strange wreck. On a mid-race restart he ran into the back of Jeff Gordon, puncturing his radiator and suffering severe front end damage
Silly Season note: Friction between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt continues to hold up a deal that would legally bind Junior to the organization his father founded.
Sources say that Earnhardt Jr., who has never had a formal contract with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, was ready to ink his deal last week. But after a brief meeting with Teresa he walked away with the contract still unsigned.
Most DEI insiders believe that it is all a matter of time before an agreement is reached. However, as long as Earnhardt Jr. is still technically a free agent other teams are trying to seduce the young star -- which may explain why Junior spent four hours last week at the Chip Ganassi shop.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories