Phoenix preview: Labonte up for the Cup

With just three races to go, the quest for the NASCAR Winston Cup reaches boiling point this weekend as the series moves into the heart of the Arizona Desert

Phoenix preview: Labonte up for the Cup

Bobby Labonte (Pontiac) holds a 201-point lead over Dale Earnhardt (Chevrolet) and can win the title this weekend at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway. Labonte, who has never won the Winston Cup, needs to gain 159-points more than the seven-time champion this weekend. That would effectively mean Labonte has to win on Sunday with Earnhardt failing to finish.

Labonte has an ace up his sleeve: team-mate Tony Stewart is a renowned master of the Phoenix oval and Bobby finished third there last year after racing with his set-up. Stewart himself will be attempting to go for back-to-back Phoenix successes, a feat only ever achieved by the late Davey Allison.

Earnhardt had a glorious opportunity to catch up at Rockingham a fortnight ago when Labonte suffered a puncture and had to pit under green racing conditions, restricting him to a 19th place finish. 'The Intimidator' also hit tyre trouble, though, when his last set of tyres created a handling imbalance that dropped him from the leading bunch to 17th at the flag, meaning he only eroded Labonte's score by nine points.

"We gained a few points on him, but nothing like we needed to. The numbers will still work for us though," he said.

Labonte has won four times this season - one less than he managed last season when he finished runner-up to Dale Jarrett. This weekend he will be looking to enhance his points lead in the shadow of the Estrella Mountains: "If it wasn't for the tyre at Rockingham then maybe we woulda picked up 50 more points or so. We'll just go to the next one," he said.

In the battle for Rookie of the Year honours, another Earnhardt is playing catch-up. Dale Jnr, who races a Chevrolet run by his dad, is 28 points behind Matt Kenseth (Ford). The pair duked it out in the Busch Grand National Division for the last two years and are again evenly matched in the Winston Cup.

Kenseth, who can claim the title this weekend, is looking forward to a calmer race than he had at Rockingham when his car burst into flames at a pitstop, causing his gas man to suffer burns. "I had a crazy weekend at Rockingham and I'm ready for a less dramatic time," he said. "I enjoy this racetrack, and the Phoenix area is a really cool part of the country to come visit."

These are how the battles match up...


1 BOBBY LABONTE, 4645, 31, 4, 16
2 DALE EARNHARDT, 4444, 31, 2, 12


1 MATT KENSETH, 276
2 DALE EARNHARDT JNR, 248

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