B. Labonte doubles up on Pocono fortunes

Victor becomes 4th to score 2 wins there in same season

July 26, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- As one caution after another piled up during the Pennsylvania 500 Winston Cup race at Pocono Raceway yesterday, 15 drivers exchanged the lead 27 times.

Many of them had never led a lap at Pocono before. Many of them led only because the caution gave the leaders a chance to pit.

But, recently, Bobby Labonte's face has been no stranger to the leader board here. And when he roared to the front with 33 laps to go, it wasn't a fluke and it wasn't by default.

Labonte's Interstate Batteries Pontiac zoomed past Rich Bickle for second and then Steve Park for first. And once in the lead, Labonte pressed his foot a little harder and stretched his lead to a full 8.655 seconds over second-place finisher Dale Jarrett.

The incredible Mark Martin, hampered by wrist, rib and knee fractures and on this day a seat so hot that "I thought my butt was going to catch on fire," limped home in third. Labonte's teammate, rookie Tony Stewart, charged from 12th to a fourth-place finish over the final 22 laps.

Until last month, Labonte had not won at Pocono. In his first nine races here his average finish was 27th, and even with back-to-back victories on this treacherous 2.5-mile tri-oval, his average finish in 14 events is just about 20th.

But yesterday, he became only the fourth driver ever to win both Pocono races in a single season, and the first to do it in 13 years.

In 1982, Bobby Allison was the first. It was the first time two Winston Cup races were held in this then primarily winter resort area, and Allison was on his way to an eight-win season.

Bill Elliott did it in 1985, the year he won 11 races in a single season and became known as "Million Dollar Bill."

And the late Tim Richmond was the last to accomplish the double in 1986. That year he joined with master crew chief Harry Hyde to win seven races and cement recognition of his brilliant talent that shown so bright in a career cut short by his AIDS-related death.

Labonte, 35 and a seven-year Winston Cup veteran, looked a little taken aback when asked how it felt to join such elite company.

"You mean, Jeff Gordon hasn't done this?" he said, referring to the three-time Winston Cup champion who finished 32nd yesterday. "It feels even better now.

"But, really, the guys you mentioned, Bobby, Bill and Tim Richmond, they were my heroes when I was growing up. And if you want to know how tough Pocono is, I can tell you how tough. I've got a lot of experience with its toughness. Two years ago, I couldn't even see the leaders of the races here all day long.

"And if no one does this again for 10 years, and someone like Casey Atwood [a star in the Busch series who is expected to make his Winston Cup debut next season] does it and you tell him I'm one of the four and the last guy who did it, well, he might not know who I am. But he'll know who they were, and it will be neat to be in that class. That's pretty good."

Going into this season, Jarrett's car owner Joe Gibbs said he thought Labonte's team was ready to win a championship. And Labonte is having a breakout year. Three wins and 11 other finishes in the top 10 in the 19 races run have him third in the points race, behind Jarrett and Martin.

"If not for a little misfortune, Bobby could be leading the points," said Jarrett, who has a 254-point advantage over Martin and a 283-point lead over Labonte.

Martin's performance yesterday may have been the most impressive. With his right knee in a brace, his wrist in a cast and his ribs taped, he has to be lifted into his car and out of it. While sitting on an unusually hot seat, he made matters worse by further straining an anterior cruciate ligament while weaving his car back and forth under nine caution flags, trying to keep his tires warm.

Since Martin crashed during practice at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, Fla., four weeks ago, he has managed finishes of 17th, sixth and third.

Labonte had many other things to overcome, though. Every few laps someone else would take the lead, and look as if that driver could emerge the winner.

But something always happened. Ward Burton and Gordon both cut tires while leading. Jarrett lost his clutch around lap 120, and pole-sitter Mike Skinner's car seemed to lose its power when the clouds rolled in with about 50 laps to go -- just about the time Labonte's picked up.

"I was pretty strong at the end," said Labonte, who averaged 116.982 mph. "It looked like it, didn't it? It felt like it. And to win by this much, heck, it was pretty neat, like a Formula One race, where you're racing against the clock."

(Starting position in parentheses) 1. (4) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 200, $139,385.

2. (15) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 200, $95,695.

3. (2) Mark Martin, Ford, 200, $82,320.

4. (12) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 200, $70,970.

5. (6) Wally Dallenbach, Chevy, 200, $59,855.

6. (14) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 200, $56,115.

7. (13) Rich Bickle, Pontiac, 200, $45,815.

8. (32) Steve Park, Chevy, 200, $46,765.

9. (11) Dale Earnhardt, Chevy, 200, $48,765.

10. (1) Mike Skinner, Chevy, 200, $70,330.

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