BURTON survives wild Southern 500

Monday, September 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Ward Burton survived a bad qualifying run, a 37th-place start and enough accidents to make Darlington Raceway look like a junkyard. Then NASCAR gave him one last obstacle to dodge at the Southern 500.

The sanctioning body stopped the race with four laps left to clean the track after a three-car crash. Burton was at the head of the pack, with former Southern 500 champions Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon close behind.

``I was stressed,'' Burton said Sunday of the 8-minute, 21-second delay. ``I had everything cut off in there to make sure it would crank, but I was definitely very nervous.''

But like every other challenge, Burton survived for his first win in 53 races and brought Dodge its first Darlington victory in 30 years.

``My heroes like Bobby Allison and all those guys that made the sport what it is today'' raced and won at Darlington, Burton said. ``To be able to run and be competitive here and be able to win ... it feels great.''

Burton capped a big family weekend. His brother Jeff, also with a Southern 500 title, won the South Carolina 200 Busch Grand National race Sunday. Jeff doused his older brother with ice water.

``I'm nearly shivering up here since Jeff did that,'' Ward said. The two join the Labontes as racing brothers with Southern 500 victories.

Burton's last victory was at Darlington, the Mall.com 400 in 2000. This one, said Burton's car owner Bill Davis, was even sweeter.

``To win the Southern 500 is right up there,'' Davis said. ``It rates up there with the Daytona 500. To leave here with the win is a really big deal.''

Burton won the race under caution after a wreck two laps from the end.

This hadn't been one of Burton's best seasons since switching from Pontiac to Dodge. He had only five top 10s in 24 events until Darlington.

And things looked bad for Burton here Friday. He needed a provisional to make the field and was lost way back on pit road.

However, Burton's machine proved strongest of all, passing 20 cars in the first 30 laps, and kept on charging until the late pass. Burton moved past Labonte as Jimmy Spencer, Joe Nemechek and Ron Hornaday tangled in a wreck on lap 360.

``I don't know if I was the best driver, but I sure had the best race car,'' Burton said.

Gordon passed Labonte on the final lap for second. Tony Stewart bounced off a last-lap pileup to finish behind Labonte. Bill Elliott was fifth.

``That was kind of ugly,'' Gordon said. ``When it comes down to the caution at the end, you've got to do what you can.''

Almost everyone who started this race seemed like they had a chance to win, no one more than Gordon.

He led 138 laps _ the most of anyone _ and was in front with 37 laps to go, but hit the wall in turn two when racing Labonte for the lead down the stretch.

``I was doing everything I could to gain position there at the end,'' said Gordon, who has five Darlington wins.

Gordon increased his Winston Cup points lead to 342 points over Rudd with 11 events left.

``It's not over, not yet,'' Gordon said. ``Most tracks we run pretty good at and we can get the top fives that we need. Hopefully, we can get a few more wins.''

Dale Jarrett, rookie pole-sitter Kurt Busch and Jeremy Mayfield also made runs at the lead.

Jarrett led three times for 53 laps, but went to the garage on lap 280 with problems to his left rear tire.

Busch became the first rookie since the late Davey Allison in 1987 to win a Darlington pole and led 74 laps before an alternator shut down and he hit the wall in turn four.

Labonte, the defending Southern 500 champion, put himself in position at the end. But Burton moved past him in turn one as cars were wrecking in turn four.

``He had already beat me,'' Labonte said. ``He was fair and square as far as the pass. What he did was right.''

Burton's winning speed was 122.773 mph in a race slowed by 11 cautions _ five which came over the last 57 laps. He earned $181,435 for the victory.

Robert Pressley had the race's scariest crash, slamming the outside wall near the finish line and spinning to a stop. He got out of the car, staggered to the wall and laid on the track until an ambulance arrived.

Pressley complained of tenderness in his lower back and abdomen and was taken to Carolina's Hospital System in Florence. A CT scan of his spine and abdomen was negative, Darlington spokeswoman Cathy Mock said.