Earnhardt, B. Labonte make the right moves

Twin 125 winners line up for Daytona

February 12, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was just a little game of chess.

"He moves, I move, he moves, they move," said Dale Earnhardt, after he and Bobby Labonte had won the two Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races that determine the starting lineup for Sunday's 41st Daytona 500.

Earnhardt won for an unprecedented 10th straight time and will start fourth Sunday, in the same spot he did a year ago, when he went on to win the 500 for the first time in 20 tries.

"It's a great streak to have," said Earnhardt, after his 0.251-of-a-second victory over Jeremy Mayfield. "I ain't seen anybody else do it. If it would be the 500, it would be talked about a lot more, but it's a pretty awesome streak. It'll be awhile before you see it happen again."

For Labonte, winning was an entirely new experience. It was his first career 125 victory, and it came with Labonte in a rare and nerve-wracking position coming down to the finish.

Labonte's Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac took the lead on Lap 39 and kept it.

"I'm usually the guy coming from the back," Labonte said after averaging 163.517 mph. "I'm usually the one making the mad dash from sixth to second at the finish. I'm not used to being out front and having to block. I don't like doing it and I'm not good at it. I thought, `I'm going to school right here.'

"I'm not sure I did it right, but I got it done."

Labonte and Earnhardt will start on the second row Sunday behind pole-sitter Jeff Gordon and rookie Tony Stewart.

It is a race that is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years.

Instead of one make of car dominating and the usual complaints from drivers and owners, all three makes are in the ballgame this season. Post-race talk was all about how good the individual cars handled, not about unfair rules or disadvantages.

"It went OK," said Mark Martin, whose Ford finished fifth in Labonte's race. "We're pretty much ready for the 500. We've only got to make a couple little adjustments."

Labonte's Pontiac was followed to the finish line by Gordon's Chevrolet and Jeff Burton's Ford. In the second race, Earnhardt saw only Fords in his rear-view mirror, as Mayfield, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace followed him home.

"If Jeremy had stayed behind Jarrett and they'd tried a run together, instead of Jeremy getting greedy, I think one of them would have won," Earnhardt said. "I was watching in my mirror. It really has gotten to be a game of chess. It used to be, you didn't have to worry about the [rearview] mirror. Now, you spend more time looking back than you do ahead.

"Bobby's learning that. He did well today and he was right there behind me to finish second in last year's Daytona 500."

Earnhardt was the surprise winner of the 500 a year ago, and there were some who thought he had been playing it a little too coy here this week. The Intimidator had practiced little.

But he said yesterday his car has been so good from the time it was unloaded from the trailer, that he has been loathe to let his team touch it.

"They keep asking me what I want to change," he said, after averaging 155.280 mph. "And I can't tell them. I don't know that there is anything to change. I'm afraid to change. I'm afraid to let them change it for fear of messing it up.

"We ran in sun, under clouds and in a little mist out there today and the car never did anything different. The car is ready to run and I'm ready to run."

His confidence was overflowing. Asked if Gordon's 24 car or his No. 3 was the one to beat, he said there are a lot of cars to beat and then added: "I ain't worried about Wonderboy [Gordon] down here."

Gordon, who led until lap 39 of the 50-lap race, got caught in lap traffic when Labonte put the move on him.

"When the cars get shuffled up like that, it's hard to hold 'em back," Gordon said. "I had a great race car. The thing felt perfect all day. When Bobby came up on me, they had a big head of steam and I couldn't do much."

And Labonte, not feeling as robust as Earnhardt, said if there had been no slow cars in front of Gordon, the outcome might have been different.

"If not for that, I don't know if I would have had anything for him," Labonte said. "But Kenny Schrader was pushing me so hard from behind when we came up on Jeff, I didn't want to let off because I figured Kenny would go by. And then I got the run on Jeff's outside and I pinched him off on those [slow] cars. But it didn't take long for him to get right back behind me."

And that's when Labonte played chess, matching Gordon move for move. He could have yelled, "Checkmate!"

NOTES: Labonte's victory ended an 18-year winless streak by Pontiac in the 125s. This was Earnhardt's 12th 125-mile win, the most by any driver, and it was his 32nd victory at the Speedway.

The first time Earnhardt tried to pass Stewart for the lead, Stewart took Earnhardt low, almost into the grass in Turn 3.

"If that had been the last lap of the 500," Earnhardt said, "Tony would still be spinning."

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