Bobby Labonte wins at Martinsville

Sunday, April 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Bobby Labonte isn't one for the bumping and banging that characterize short-track racing. So when the Pontiac driver found himself in prime position Sunday, he just had to drive.

On a day when Kevin Harvick wasn't allowed to race, the Virginia 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race still featured plenty of banging, and one near gift from Tony Stewart that Labonte turned into his 19th victory.

``I'm never going to push anybody out of the way like I've seen other guys do, so I figured if I was up front I probably had a better shot than being behind somebody,'' Labonte said of his first short-track victory.

Harvick's growing status as NASCAR's bad boy was solidified hours before the race, when the governing body made him the first driver barred from an event because of rough driving in the series' 54-year history.

Harvick's penalty came after he clashed several time with Coy Gibbs during the Advance Auto Parts 250 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday.

Harvick's Richard Childress-owned Chevrolet was driven instead by fill-in Kenny Wallace, who spun out after 73 laps and wound up 32nd.

Despite the buzz about Harvick and the unprecedented penalty in the garage area before the race, the 500 laps went on in typical Martinsville fashion with most every car leaving the track with marked-up exteriors.

In all, there were 14 caution flags that slowed the pace for 104 laps, many caused by the nose-to-tail and side-by-side contact that typify short-track racing, and got Harvick in trouble with NASCAR officials.

The race even ended under a final-lap caution after a crash, allowing Labonte to cruise home in the glow of the pace car's flashing lights.

In all likelihood, he had Stewart to thank.

Stewart led the race until Stacy Compton and Johnny Benson got together, Benson spinning into the wall to bring out the 11th yellow flag.

Only 55 laps remained, but Stewart and Bobby Hamilton, who was running fourth, pitted to take on two new tires, giving Labonte the lead.

``I saw (Stewart) going in and I said, `He might fake us out,' but he didn't. I thought, `There's usually a lot of cautions here the last 60 some-odd laps and I'm better off just trying to stay out,''' Labonte said.

Labonte was right, as two more cautions flew before the final lap, all but depriving Stewart from getting his dominant car back to the front.

Labonte's crew chief, Jimmy Makar, said he loved his driver's call.

``Usually your driver wants four tires every time a caution comes out, so when he even mentioned the words `staying out,' it was like a breath of fresh air to me,'' Makar said. ``I was all over that really quick.''

Stewart came back out 13th and rallied for third despite the late cautions and a duel between runnerup Matt Kenseth and Dale Jarrett that had them battling side-by-side, effectively blocking Stewart's progress.

``If he'd have stayed out, he probably would have won,'' Labonte said.

Stewart initially declined to comment after the race, then accepted partial blame for the costly decision to come in for the two tires.

``We had the best car out here all day and we gave it away,'' he said. ``I was right with (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) on the call to come in and take two and nobody else came. ... But we had the best car all day.''

Instead, Labonte won with an average speed of 73.951 mph, becoming the 10th different driver to win in the last 10 visits to the .526-mile track, the longest, oldest and tightest run in the Winston Cup series.

Kenseth, who started 26th, was thrilled to come so close.

``Everything just worked out,'' Kenseth said after his fifth straight top-five finish, including two victories. ``We just kind of aimed for a top-10 finish today and came out second, so I couldn't be happier.''

Jarrett held on for fourth, just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

``That's as hard and close racing as I've seen here,'' the defending race champion said. ``It was fun. Everyone was beatin' and bangin.'''

The day proved a long one for pole-sitter and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who was running second when he got caught in a wreck on lap No. 210, cut a tire and dropped to 33rd in the field.

He finished 23rd, a non-winner for the 16th consecutive race.

The race had 19 lead changes among 13 drivers. Stewart led 152 laps.