Labonte's NASCAR title a near-certainty

Jeff Burton won Sunday's Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500k at Phoenix International Raceway, but a fifth-place finish for Bobby Labonte means the championship leader has to finish only 28th or better in the last two races to take his first NASCAR Winston Cup crown

Labonte's NASCAR title a near-certainty

By winning, Burton has become a man for all seasons - and all types of weather. When he swept both the NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Winston Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, he continued his reputation as NASCAR's 'Rain Man' by winning a rain-shortened event at the 1.5-mile track.

But just to prove his versatility, Burton was able to sweep both the Busch Series and Winston Cup events in the desert at Phoenix over the weekend without a drop of rain to be found.

"We'll have to run more races in the desert now," Burton joked after proving he's pretty good in both the wet and the dry. "Maybe I should run in the Baja 1000."

Burton passed team mate Mark Martin with four laps left Burton defeated fellow Ford Taurus driver Jeremy Mayfield by 0.854s for his fourth victory of the season and 15th of his career.

Steve Park was third in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, followed by the Ford of Rusty Wallace and the Pontiac Grand Prix of Bobby Labonte, who increased his NASCAR Winston Cup points lead to 218 points with two races left in the season. Labonte can clinch the championship if he finishes 28th or better in the final two races.

Just when it appeared Ricky Rudd was on his way to breaking a two-year winless streak, he crashed with 17 laps remaining in the 500-kilometre race.

"I feel bad for Ricky Rudd," Burton said. "He looked like he was in real good shape. We were going to catch him, but catching him doesn't mean you're going to pass him. Ricky is obviously a great race car driver, his wins will come again. He's showing everybody he can still do it - here's no doubt about that."

The leaders made their final pit stop during the caution period and Martin, who decided to stay out on the track to take over the lead without making a pit stop, was in front when the race restarted with 10 laps to go.

But two laps after the green flag waved, Burton was able to pass Martin in turn 3 of the one-mile speedway and took the lead. Mayfield also passed Martin for second on lap 309.

There were 23 lead changes among 13 drivers in the race, which was attended by a crowd estimated at 100,000. Burton led six times for 105 laps, the most of any driver in the race and took US$197,345 home with him.

In spite of his dominant car, Burton had to come from behind when a jack broke on his pit stop on lap 249.

"We did lose track position every now and then," Burton said. "We just didn't
have a good day in the pits, not because we don't have good guys but because it didn't work out for us."

Burton began a long stretch in the lead on lap 156 was in front when he made his pit stop on lap 249. After the pit crew encountered problems when the jack broke, that put Burton further back in the field. He was able to fight his way toward the front before the leader, Rudd, could not avoid the crash that involved Rick Mast and Mike Bliss.

Burton's team changed two tires on the final pit stop, rather than four. Martin decided to stay out of pits to take over the lead.

With Burton driving the best car in the race, there was little Martin could do to protect the lead. Burton was able to make the pass for the win with four laps remaining.

With four wins, Burton can tie Tony Stewart for most victories in the series if he wins one of the last two races at Homestead and Atlanta.

Full results to follow

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