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Labonte Wins 1st Winston Cup Title

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — With a bag of ice still melting in the seat around him, Tony Stewart frantically searched to find the radio frequency Bobby Labonte was using during the Pennzoil 400.

Stewart had something to say.

Tuning the dial up then down, he struggled to locate his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Finally, after several attempts, Stewart heard Labonte's voice.

Then Stewart chimed in, ``Good job, champ.''

Labonte clinched his first Winston Cup Series title with a fourth-place finish Sunday in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He took a victory lap alongside Stewart, who won the race for the second straight year.

``It feels great. We've had a great year and it feels great to beat the guys we beat like Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon,'' Labonte said. ``It's just awesome. I can't really believe it. You start thinking it's going to happen, but you never know until it's over.''

Labonte led two laps Sunday, allowing him to finish as low as sixth in the next-to-last race of the year to capture the title, which was worth $3 million.

He started third in the 43-car field and spent most of the day running fourth to eighth, often more than half a lap behind Stewart. The steady performance was typical of Labonte, who earned his 18th top-five finish this year.

For the second year in a row, Stewart won the race but shared the spotlight. Last year it was with Jarrett; this time it was with his teammate.

``It's a great day for Joe Gibbs Racing,'' said Stewart, who led 166 of the 267 laps. ``For Bobby to win the championship, I couldn't be prouder of him.''

Earnhardt, who began the day second in the Winston Cup Series points standings, started 37th and finished 20th. He dropped one spot in the standings, falling 19 points behind Burton.

Jeremy Mayfield took second, 4.5 seconds behind Stewart, and Mark Martin was third. Pole-sitter Steve Park kept the lead for only nine laps and finished eighth.

On a warm, sunny day, Stewart became woozy during the second half of the race. His crew dumped a bag of ice down his suit during each of his final two pit stops.

``I've never dealt with heat very well, and I was feeling sick,'' Stewart said. ``You probably pay a $1.50 for a bag of ice, and that probably won us the race. I wouldn't have made it, and that cooled me off.''

When the race ended, Labonte pulled his Pontiac alongside Stewart's and motioned that they should share a victory lap.

``I thought he was going to knock the door off my car, he was so happy,'' Stewart said. ``To share that moment with Bobby, that's a moment I'll never forget the rest of my life.''

Added Gibbs, who coached the Washington Redskins to victories in the 1983, `88 and `92 Super Bowls: ``Our group is a quiet group, but that's as good a celebration as I've seen.''

The scene was reminiscent of Terry Labonte's second Winston Cup win in 1996, when he circled the track alongside Bobby.

Terry Labonte was the Winston Cup champion in 1984 and `96. He and Bobby are the first brothers to win titles.

``Just watching him sure helped a lot,'' Bobby Labonte said. With a laugh he added, ``I'm still one behind.''
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