Labonte wins, but attention goes to Earnhardt

Martin hopes IROC move works in DieHard 500

Auto Racing

April 16, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Mark Martin has learned a thing or two through the years. He's learned that cooperation disappears if you win "too much." And he also has learned that if you stay behind Dale Earnhardt and follow him toward the front, Earnhardt will win and you won't.

Yesterday, with Bobby Labonte leading Earnhardt and Martin into the last lap, Martin decided to do something about that in the True Value IROC Race 2. The result was Earnhardt didn't win and Bobby Labonte did. A further result might have been to plant a few seeds that could flower as soon as today's DieHard 500 Winston Cup race.

"If Earnhardt is ahead of me on the racetrack, I know everyone goes with him and that's why he has so much success," said Martin, who finished second because he made his move before Earnhardt was able to make his. "No one will win but Earnhardt if you just stay behind him."

Almost everyone expected Earnhardt, who finished third, to win yesterday, just as almost everyone expects him to have a great chance today at joining Buddy Baker as the only drivers to win three consecutive Winston Cup races on Talladega Superspeedway's 2.66 mile tri-oval.

Earnhardt is the all-time winner at Talladega with seven Cup victories. He won both races here last season and will start fourth today, on the second row beside Dale Jarrett. They will be led to the starting line by pole-sitter Jeremy Mayfield and second-place qualifier Bill Elliott.

"Dale is the master at Daytona and Talladega," Martin said.

"But after I won my fourth IROC championship, I noticed a severe change in cooperation. Dale may find he will have to fight that, too."

Earnhardt, who won three of four IROC races last year and the series title, has seen three of his past four Winston Cup victories come here and at Daytona International Speedway.

"I don't expect to have friends on the racetrack," said Earnhardt, shrugging off Martin's words. "When you race, you have to learn to win by yourself."

Earnhardt was the most vocal critic of NASCAR at February's Daytona 500, where a new shock and spring rule along with a poorly designed nose on his Chevrolet race car combined to make him uncompetitive in qualifying and a 21st-place finisher in the race.

Since then, NASCAR has allowed the Chevrolet teams to raise the nose of their cars by two inches, allowing more air to reach the front air dam and create more downforce. And, NASCAR has also allowed all of the teams to choose their own shocks and springs on the front of the cars here, though the back package is still NASCAR-regulated.

Earnhardt has not said everything is perfect, but he came close after "Happy Hour," the last practice session before today's race.

"Considering how we looked Friday morning [when his team was forced to rebuild his car's trunk when it failed to pass NASCAR inspection], and how we look now, I'm totally happy," he said. "My team did a great job on our car for qualifying. It was really pretty awesome. Now the biggest thing I'm worried about is drafting and racing and that felt pretty good today."

Which brings us back to Martin. He made his move on Earnhardt at the start of the last lap of yesterday's IROC race before Earnhardt could make his. Today, a few others just might try to do the same.

"I got shuffled back pretty good," Earnhardt said. "You really have only one or two moves and you have to make those moves count, especially when everybody is trying to make the same move at the same time."

NOTES: Labonte averaged 182.583 mph to win IROC Race 2 by .073 of a second. It was his first IROC victory. Earnhardt goes to IROC Race 3 at Michigan Speedway, June 10, still leading the series points race with 40 points. Labonte is second with 34. Yesterday's race will be shown by ABC at 5 p.m. today The Wood Brothers and their driver, Elliott Sadler, failed to make the field for today's race. It is only the second time in 50 years that the team has gone home before the main event.

Busch series

Joe Nemechek didn't need a photo to tell him he won the Touchstone Energy 300. It was never that close.

Nemechek won the Busch Series race yesterday at Talladega Superspeedway when he easily beat Buckshot Jones to the finish line.

It was redemption for Nemechek, a Winston Cup regular who was edged in a photo finish in last year's race by Terry Labonte.

This time, everyone knew he finished first.

Nemechek took the lead away from Jones with seven laps to go and steadily pulled away, winning by .224 of a second, about three car lengths.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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