B. Labonte conquers Pocono

Winner of tight race tightens points race

June 21, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- A week ago, Dale Jarrett ran away from the rest of the Winston Cup field and made a snooze out of the Kmart 400 in Michigan. Yesterday, he threatened to do the same thing here at the Pocono 500.

"But then the clouds rolled in," Jarrett said. "And my car got tight."

It was just about that time that Bobby Labonte, who had never won a race at Pocono Raceway, loosened up and won the ensuing multi-car battle by holding off Jeff Gordon by .340 of a second, to the delight of the estimated crowd of 140,000 at Pocono Raceway.

"Last week we raced for five laps and today we raced all day," said Labonte, referring to the close competition that lasted over the last 250 miles. "No one was giving an inch out there."

Jarrett, who led 71 of the 200 laps, finished third, with pole-sitter Sterling Marlin fourth, Mark Martin fifth and Labonte's rookie teammate, Tony Stewart, sixth.

"Bobby's team has been coming on for a while," said Gordon. "The Pontiacs are running good right now, too, and running behind him, like I did today, I know they're getting good horsepower and Bobby is getting the car into the turns real well. He's consistent, and we have our hands full with him."

The "we" includes Jarrett, the series points leader. Yesterday morning Jarrett had a 66-point margin over Jeff Burton and was 94 points ahead of Labonte. By evening, Labonte was nipping at Jarrett's bumper, 89 points back, and Burton had slipped to third with a 36th-place finish after an early crash messed up his handling.

"The 18 concerns me a lot," said Jarrett of Labonte, whose team has two wins in the past three weeks and has not finished out of the top five in the past seven. "He's led almost every race we've had, and it's way too early for me to be thinking we're in control of the points race."

Jarrett was talking about the points chase with Gordon, the two-time defending champion, sitting beside him and recalled that a year ago he was trying to scratch away at Gordon's points lead.

"I do like this scenario better than last year's," Jarrett said. "I like it that he goes home and cusses me instead of me cussing him."

Gordon, who moved up from sixth to fifth in points here, pulled down on the brim of his hat. "You've got it," he said, conceding he might do just that. A couple of times yesterday, Gordon went to the front and looked as if he might find his fourth win of the season. But in the car, he said, he knew it wasn't likely.

"I just could not lead," Gordon said. "They'd get within a car-length of me and my car would get loose. When Jimmy Spencer took the lead on me for the last time, he drifted up a bit and I had to let a bunch of guys go by and then work my way back up. I feel good about finishing second and keeping Dale behind me."

Spencer was one of the 13 drivers who led this race. The popular native of Berwick, Pa., who hasn't won since 1994 and last week learned his team's sponsorship would not be renewed next season, also looked like a possible winner.

Spencer seemed capable of holding off the pack. Labonte arrived on his bumper with 18 laps to go and admitted he didn't know if he could get by him.

"It was going to be hard," Labonte said, after averaging 118.898 mph and winning $151,110. "But then we both got in oil and were heading for the wall."

Spencer, on the outside and in the lead, had nowhere to go but up to the wall when, on Lap 185, his car slipped in oil spilled moments earlier from Bill Elliott's car. Labonte was luckier. His Pontiac leaned on Spencer's Ford a bit and kept going.

He was lucky in another way, too. His crew chief Jimmy Makar seemed to have made a mistake, but in the final analysis made a move that may have made winning possible.

Makar lost track of the number of laps his car had run on fresh tires when a caution flag came out on Lap 154. He knew they could make it to the finish without more fuel, but he decided to bring Labonte in for four new tires. Jarrett's team did the same. But they were the only ones.

"I wasn't thinking," said Makar. "When Bobby went back on the track and I saw how far back we were [23rd], that no one else had come in for tires, I was pretty down on myself."

But those fresh tires held their grip in the oil and they helped keep Labonte ahead of Gordon at the finish.

NOTE: Rusty Wallace and Dave Marcis were involved in a couple of frightening crashes. Wallace smashed head-on into the Turn One wall when his right front tire blew, but was not injured. Marcis spun coming out of Turn Two and suffered cuts on his chin, a bruised ankle and neck and chest tenderness. He was examined and released from a local hospital.

(Results, 9D)

Pub Date: 6/21/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.