NASCAR: SOUTHERN 500
T. Labonte ends long win drought
Published: Monday, September 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2003 at 12:03 a.m.
DARLINGTON, S.C. - There was at least one person at Darlington Raceway on Sunday who wasn't surprised Terry Labonte ended a 156-race winless streak with a victory in the Southern 500.
Junqueira held off rookie Sebastien Bourdais at the end, beating his teammate by 0.335 seconds on the 1.65-mile street course.
Servia finished third, followed by Paul Tracy and Adrian Fernandez.
Starting position was considered critical, which benefited pole-sitter Junqueira. In CART's previous 14 races this season, the winner has started no worse than fourth, and that trend held true in Sunday's race. The only significant passing took place in the pits.
Junqueira won the inaugural Denver race last year, but had a tougher time this year.
-The Associated Press
"I look at him like a fine wine, he just gets better with age," said Bobby Labonte, Terry's younger brother and fellow Winston Cup driver.
"I know the last few years have been hard on him, but he didn't lose confidence that he can do it," Bobby added. "It was just a matter of when."
The win could not have come at a better time for the elder Labonte, who gained a piece of history by winning the last Southern 500 run on Labor Day weekend.
Terry Labonte took control of the 367-lap event late in the race with a lightning fast pit stop, and went on to win the 54th running of NASCAR's oldest 500-mile race.
"I was really tired of a losing streak from hell," the winner said. "With 15 (laps) to go, it was about the longest 14 laps I've ever run. Even though you feel you still can (win), all the pieces have to come together. I'm just glad it's over."
Labonte stopped at the finish line to get the checkered flag for a victory lap that brought everyone in the record Darlington crowd of more than 65,000 to its feet.
"It's really special for me," added the two-time Winston Cup champion Labonte, who first raced here in 1978 and took the first of his 22 wins in the 1980 Southern 500. "I was running with Bill Elliott (late in the race) and thinking to myself, 'I hope one of us wins it because we appreciate this place more than some of the young guys do."
As Labonte's No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet drove slowly around the unique 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval, his crew raced across the track to climb the fence in the tradition started by open-wheel racer Helio Castroneves.
"I'm glad they did that," Labonte said. "They won this race for me."
Labonte, whose previous win came in his native Texas in March 1999, ran among the leaders all day and finally went ahead for the first time on lap 335 when his crew changed four tires and filled his Chevy with gas in 13.11 seconds during a caution-period stop.
"That really started earlier in the race," crew chief Jim Long said. "We were picking up about three spots on every stop."
The final stop moved Labonte from third to first and it was no contest the rest of the way. He got a great restart when the green flag waved for lap 338 and built a lead of more than 2 seconds over Kevin Harvick, weaving expertly through lapped traffic. He beat Harvick's Chevrolet to the finish line by 1.651 seconds - about 15 car-lengths.
"Terry and I were pretty much the same speed," Harvick said. "I think everybody is happy to see him win. If there's anybody that should win the last Southern 500 on Labor Day, it's somebody like Terry Labonte, who is a legend in our sport."
The holiday tradition will be no more in 2004, with the Labor Day weekend race date going to 7-year-old California Speedway. The Southern 500 is moving to November, possibly under the lights, at stock car racing's oldest venue.
Despite its historic significance, Sunday's race was hardly a classic.
There were 10 cautions, including two multi-car crashes on the treacherous, misshapen oval. The most dominating driver, Ryan Newman, self-destructed, and the finish of the race was a far cry from the March race in which Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch by inches in a fender-banging, side-by-side run to the checkered flag.
But it was definitely a popular victory by the 47-year-old Labonte, whose championships came in 1985 and 1996 and whose career has seemingly been in eclipse the last few seasons.
"We felt like we were just a lot better team than we were a year ago," Labonte said. "We felt like we were close enough we could think about winning a race."
Jimmie Johnson finished a distant third, followed by rookie Jamie McMurray, three-time Southern 500 winner Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield and Bobby Labonte.
Series leader Matt Kenseth ran in the top 10 for a while, but finished 14th. Runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 25th, nine laps off the pace. His deficit increased from 351 points to a whopping 389 with 11 races remaining.
Ryan Newman started from the pole and led a race-high 120 laps. He was leading before making an uncharacteristic mistake during a routine pit stop during a caution period on lap 229.
Newman's engine stalled, and his over-the-wall crew worked to near exhaustion in the smothering Southern Carolina heat, trying repeatedly to push-start the No. 12 Dodge. After Newman lost seven laps, last year's top rookie realized he had somehow hit the kill switch on the steering column.
He wound up 23rd, eight laps behind Labonte.
There were two big crashes, the first coming on lap five when it appeared Jason Leffler hit the rear of Christian Fittipaldi's car and ignited a crash that involved Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip and Tony Raines.
On lap 165, Casey Mears slid in front of five-time Southern 500 winner Jeff Gordon and slammed into the wall. Gordon went into a slow slide. Dave Blaney hit Johnny Benson and sent both of them hurtling into Gordon and Mears, who said he didn't know Gordon was beside him. Sterling Marlin then drove through the smoke and into Benson's car, which went up and nearly turned over.
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