Labonte takes strange - but typical - Darlington race

Monday, September 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C.-The race was bizarre. The winner was not.

Typical Darlington.

Bobby Labonte, who wrecked his primary car in a scary stuck-throttle practice accident, qualified 37th in his backup and didn't lead a lap the first five hours, was out front when it counted _ and at Darlington Raceway lately that means when it rains _ to win the Southern 500 on Sunday.

"It was kind of strange in a lot of ways," said Labonte, who increased his Winston Cup points lead to 111 over Dale Jarrett.

"We didn't have the fastest race car, obviously, but we were going to run all day," Labonte said. "I didn't think I deserved it, but the good Lord blessed us with rain at the right time."

Labonte's Pontiac won under caution with several past Darlington experts close behind. Jeff Burton, who swept last year's two races here, was second. Then came nine-time Darlington winner Dale Earnhardt, four-time Southern 500 champ Jeff Gordon, two-time TranSouth winner Dale Jarrett and Ward Burton, who won the 400 here in March.

Clouds passed over the track all day as pole sitter Jeremy Mayfield, nine-time winner Earnhardt, four-time Southern 500 champ Gordon and both Burtons tried to outguess the weather.

Earnhardt seemed the most certain winner about 90 minutes before the race was called after 328 laps. Drops spotted the black asphalt with the Intimidator ahead and the crowd cheering as he trailed the pace car on each slow caution lap.

Earnhardt's crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, kept him out while others pitted, confident the waves of storms would come and let him tie David Pearson as Darlington's all-time winner.

When they didn't, No. 3 hit the pits and fell back.

"We stayed out and gambled, Jarrett and I," Earnhardt said. "That was our day."

Defending champion Jeff Burton took control on laps 245 through 260 until he was passed by his brother.

Ward increased the lead to several seconds and looked like he would extend the Burton family's Darlington win streak to four. But the ninth caution for oil on the track tightened things up and made it a pit duel.

Labonte's crew got him out first and Mother Nature did the rest.

"It was crazy," Ward Burton said. "It was definitely not strange in the right way for us, that's for sure."

Burton said his final pit stop was more than 17 seconds "and that cost us the race right there."

When the rains hit in South Carolina's PeeDee, they hit hard.

Labonte, his crew and car owner Joe Gibbs crammed beneath a metal garage roof to accept the trophy.

"JIMMMMEEEE," said Gibbs, the ex-NFL coach, to crew chief Jimmy Makar, "that thing turned about 50 times, didn't it?"

"It sure did," Makar said.

At each thunderclap, the Interstate Batteries crew whooped and screamed.

Labonte's 2-year-old daughter Madison, clinging to her mother Donna, asked for a ride back to the trailer to escape the booming noises.

Gibbs finally cut short the celebration _ which included an oversized, walking Mr. Peanut _ when he feared a lightning bolt might take out the team he's worked so long to build.

"How about that pit stop?" said Gibbs, fist-bumping with crew members like it was a Super Bowl locker room instead of a NASCAR team. "How about it?"

Labonte earned $196,180 for the victory, his third of the season. The race took 6 hours, 16 minutes and 27 seconds to complete, only 14 minutes less than the first event at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway 50 years ago.

Labonte said the weekend ordeals showed the strength of his race team and they chase a title over the next two months.

There was a moment Friday following his hard crash where he wondered how seriously he was hurt. Then came the disappointment in qualifying and his long day of racing.

The victory "was definitely awesome," Labonte said. "This one, the Brickyard, they are for sure ones you want on your resume. But I can't say enough about this team."