Labonte dodges weather to take Darlington win

NASCAR's Pepsi Southern 500 is a must-win and career-maker race, the Summer-ending ritual at one of the nastiest tracks, deep in the heart of the sport's fan base. This year's race was in a class of its own - a race that could have ended at any moment but seemed like it never would

Labonte dodges weather to take Darlington win

Beset by hours of rain, the event was more than six hours in the staging and tantalized fans with more than half-a-dozen potential winners. The true winner was Bobby Labonte - or more aptly his crew.

Labonte started the marathon race way down in 37th place after a hard crash before qualifying, yet was in the right spot during a torrential rain storm thanks to a decision by the Gibbs Racing crew chief Jimmy Makar to take no gas in a fast and final pit stop.

Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett rounded out the top five - all of whom had a chance of winning late in the race. Labonte's win takes his championship lead to 111 points over Jarrett and 205 over Earnhardt, with ten races remaining.

The race was started early by the organisers, with the intention of getting a jump on threatening storm clouds. But just half an hour into the 500-miler, rains flooded the steep banking and the race was halted on lap 36 of 367.

All cars save those of Dave Marcis and Darrell Waltrip (making his 800th career start) pitted during a brief yellow before the red. As track-drying commenced, pole-sitter Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Jimmy Spencer and Scott Pruett were next in line for the eventual restart.

More than two hours passed before the engines were refired, and fans cheered as Marcis pitted to ensure Waltrip would lead his last race at NASCAR's first and oldest superspeedway. Waltrip's engine expired 50 laps later, a typical finish in the veteran's star-crossed farewell 'Victory Tour'.

The lap 51 green flag was short-lived as Johnny Benson, cut off from team advice because of a broken radio, crashed after contact with Ward Burton in turn one. When the green was waved again after the clean-up, Mayfield showed himself to be a contender, jumping to more than a three second lead in ten laps.

Further down the pack, Jeff Burton made an incredible march toward the top ten from a 35th place start. Labonte, too, was charging to 15th when a fourth caution was waved - John Andretti whacked the turn two wall on lap 79 and hit Robert Pressley as he drifted into traffic.

The field pitted at this tyre-hungry egg-shaped oval, with Mayfield, Earnhardt, Martin, Stewart and Gordon pacing the lap 83 restart. Burton advanced to ninth on pit road.

Mayfield sailed away again on the restart and by lap 102 was about to start lapping backmarkers - four seconds ahead of Martin, Stewart, Earnhardt and Gordon. That's when disaster struck for the young driver. The historically treacherous turn four - with an abrupt turning radius - is now turn two. Mayfield passed Marcis in two and, as he tucked in to finish the manoeuvre, clipped Marcis and went headlong hard into the wall. Mayfield recovered with no yellow necessary, but limped to the garage after leading almost every hot lap - handing the lead to Martin.

"We finally got it right," said a dejected Mayfield, "but I was a little too impatient."

The race's first green flag pit stops began with Gordon on lap 133, just 50-odd miles after his last stop. The rest of the pack soon followed to take on new rubber. Gordon led for a while as a result, but Martin clawed to the front and the pair trailed Stewart, Earnhardt and Jeff Burton.

Geoffrey Bodine brought out the fifth caution just a handful of laps before the halfway point - at which point the race becomes eligible for points if stopped. The leaders pitted, watching storm clouds gather again in the sky. Earnhardt accelerated after Jarrett in the race out of the pit-lane and won it, leading the Southern 500 for the first time in five years.

Jarrett though, was far from beaten. After the restart on lap 179, the reigning champ ducked under the seven-time winner and held the point for six laps. That's when Earnhardt mashed the throttle, and brought Gordon and eventually Stewart past the blue Ford. Stewart suddenly slowed and pitted on lap 198, with a deflating tyre.

The yellows came out again on lap 207 for rain and Earnhardt was still in front with a hard-charging Gordon, Jarrett, Ward Burton and Martin in tow. The points significance would be minimal if the rain remained, as Labonte ran sixth, and none of the leaders were going to pit if rain or poor light brought the race to a premature end.

Well not exactly. While light drizzle persisted, virtually everyone bar the first two ducked in on lap 210, hoping that the weather radar showing big storms was wrong. Labonte fell to 10th as the field circled for a dozen laps under yellow. Jet dryers on the track, which had both wet and dry patches, encouraged Earnhardt and Jarrett to stay out.

It wasn't going to happen. With the "one more lap" to green board out, the pair and two others peeled off for new rubber, turning over the lead to Earnhardt, Jr.

The race went green again on lap 227. Junior, Elliott Sadler, Gordon, Ward Burton and Terry Labonte led the pack. Half a lap behind them, amid the backmarkers and in lots of traffic, Jimmy Spencer led the elder Earnhardt toward the front. Spencer took turn four a little too hard and smacked the wall, requiring a seventh caution in which everyone pitted.

Lightning cracked the skies in turn three as Labonte, Junior and Gordon took the lap 245 green. It was Jeff Burton, however, who shot to the lead and took the eighth yellow when Marcis pushed into Wallace and Kenseth on the front straight. More pit stops and the next green on lap 255 featured a battle of the Brothers Burton. With more than a hundred laps remaining (weather and sunset permitting) Ward passed for the lead while the newly-shod Chevrolet of Earnhardt advanced to 7th.

Ward earned a three-second lead over one of the race's longer green-flag runs but gave it up when Jerry Nadeau's engine exploded and brought out the ninth caution on lap 320.

The leaders all pitted and Bobby Labonte was first out after crew chief Jimmy Makar elected for no gas in his stop. Jeff Burton, Earnhardt, Gordon and Jarrett all beat Ward Burton to the track...where the green was never waved.

Never did a pit crew truly merit the weekly nod, "I couldn't have done it without them."

Rain pelted down and in near zero-visibility, Labonte was shown the chequered flag; he was the improbable winner of the Southern 500 on lap 328, 39 laps shy of the scheduled length.

Winston Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway, Unofficial Results

1 (37) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 328, $198,180.
2 (35) Jeff Burton, Ford, 328, $106,705.
3 (6) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 328, $82,745.
4 (10) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 328, $82,540.
5 (9) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 328, $80,570.
6 (3) Ward Burton, Pontiac, 328, $66,655.
7 (30) Kevin Lepage, Ford, 328, $55,535.
8 (17) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 328, $52,475.
9 (29) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 328, $55,735.
10 (39) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 328, $53,330.
11 (13) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 328, $46,345.
12 (31) Rick Mast, Pontiac, 328, $39,750.
13 (27) Ted Musgrave, Chevrolet, 328, $48,860.
14 (5) Mark Martin, Ford, 328, $56,970.
15 (38) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 328, $53,680.
16 (8) Ken Schrader, Pontiac, 327, $38,310.
17 (33) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet, 327, $46,390.
18 (21) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 327, $45,615.
19 (42) Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford, 327, $36,660.
20 (22) Dave Blaney, Pontiac, 327, $35,865.
21 (26) Chad Little, Ford, 327, $45,065.
22 (19) Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, 326, $43,820.
23 (28) Dave Marcis, Chevrolet, 326, $31,950.
24 (7) Scott Pruett, Ford, 324, $31,750.
25 (40) David Green, Ford, 324, $43,215.
26 (36) Steve Grissom, Pontiac, 324, $43,330.
27 (18) Brett Bodine, Ford, 324, $31,295.
28 (20) Mike Bliss, Pontiac, 323, $31,160.
29 (15) Jerry Nadeau, Chevrolet, 315, engine failure, $42,425.
30 (16) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 308, $48,940.
31 (25) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 306, engine failure, $42,580.
32 (12) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, 305, $41,865.
33 (24) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 286, $41,675.
34 (32) Hut Stricklin, Ford, 268, engine failure, $30,515.
35 (14) Kenny Wallace, Chevrolet, 264, engine failure, $41,380.
36 (41) Robert Pressley, Ford, 245, $33,295.
37 (34) John Andretti, Pontiac, 223,handling, $48,206.
38 (2) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 175, handling, $32,535.
39 (23) Geoffrey Bodine, Chevrolet, 171, accident, $38,000.
40 (11) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 123, eng. failure, $37,900.
41 (1) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 120, accident, $37,850.
42 (43) Darrell Waltrip, Ford, 113, electrical, $29,800.
43 (4) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 15, engine failure, $37,750.

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