Terry Labonte holds on
for Southern 500 win
The final Labor Day weekend race?
By DAVID POOLE
The Charlotte Observer
DARLINGTON, S.C. - Terry Labonte, a veteran who had endured a drought of 156 races without a Winston Cup victory, scored perhaps the biggest race victory of his distinguished career Sunday in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
At the same track where he started his first Winston Cup race in 1978, finishing fourth, and earned his first victory in the Southern 500 two years later, Labonte got the lead with a quick pit stop on the final yellow flag and stayed out front the rest of the way.
Kevin Harvick, who finished second for the third straight race, bounced off Ryan Newman's lapped car coming off Turn 2 after the final green and lost too much ground to mount any kind of serious challenge down the stretch.
Jimmie Johnson was third, Jamie McMurray finished fourth and Bill Elliott was fifth.
One day after 19-year-old Brian Vickers and 18-year-old Kyle Busch finished first and second in a Busch Series race in Hendrick Motorsports-owned cars, the 46-year-old Labonte followed suit. It was the 27th career victory for the two-time Winston Cup champion, but his first since a win at Texas on March 28, 1999.
Labonte started third and ran near the front all day, but didn't lead until after a caution for Robby Gordon's crash in Turn 1 brought out a yellow flag on Lap 333.
His crew changed tires but added no fuel to his Chevrolet on that final stop, and that may have been just enough to allow him to beat Harvick to the end of pit road at this historic 1.366-mile track which has hosted a Labor Day weekend race every year since 1950 - a streak that will end next year.
From there, it was a 33-lap march to victory lane.
"I think this is the biggest victory right here," Labonte said. "This is pretty exciting, winning the last Southern 500 on Labor Day is pretty cool.
It's really special for me. I was running there with Bill Elliott and I thought, 'I hope one of us wins it,' because I think we'd appreciate it more than some of these younger guys."
Labonte, eschewing the burnouts today's young winners like to do after winning races, went old school with his celebration. He stopped at the flag stand, got the checkered flag and took it for a ride around the track.
"We were on the losing streak from hell there for a while," Labonte said. "I think we've got it behind us now. ...It's just a great day for us. I can't say enough about this team. We felt like we were just a lot better team than we were a year ago."
Six cars were damaged in the day's first incident on Lap 5, which began when Jason Leffler and Christian Fittipaldi got together in Turn 3. Several more cars took hits when traffic stacked up on the restart on Lap 14, with Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin eventually going to the garage because of their damage.
Newman was in control of the race until Lap 66 when points leader Matt Kenseth got around him. Jeff Burton, who had a big mover in the early going, led after pits stops for a yellow on Lap 99, but Kenseth went back to the point on the restart.
On Lap 108, Kenseth's Ford clipped the Turn 2 wall and he quickly fell from first to third with Burton and Newman sweeping by. This time, Burton took off. By Lap 140, he was nearly nine seconds ahead Harvick. But that disappeared when a caution for debris slowed the pace on Lap 147.
Harvick got the lead on pit stops when Burton's team had a lug nut hang up on its stop, but Johnson got the lead on Lap 159 just before another six-car wreck in Turn 3 on Lap 166 slowed the pace again.
That wreck began with Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears getting together, ending Gordon's chances to get a record sixth career Southern 500 victory. Johnny Benson, Ken Schrader, Dave Blaney and Kenny Wallace were also involved.
Johnson, coming back around toward the caution, ran up on Michael Waltrip from behind as traffic slowed and slightly damaged the nose of his Chevrolet.
Pit road finally opened on Lap 170 and the leaders came in again. Johnson came off pit road first ahead of Newman, with Burton losing more valuable track position because he had to make an extra stop under yellow to check for more loose lug nuts.
Newman passed Johnson off Turn 2 on the restart on Lap 176 to reclaim the lead, and was still out front on Lap 228 when Joe Nemechek's Chevrolet spun on the backstretch and brought out a yellow.
That proved to be a disastrous stop for Newman's team when his No. 12 Dodge stalled and would not refire as he tried to leave pit road. Newman's crew pushed the car several times to the end of pit road, but it would not start.
He fell eight laps down as the field got going again when the team figured out that Newman had accidentally hit the engine kill switch mounted on his steering wheel.
Greg Biffle had the lead on the restart on Lap 234, but after Ken Schrader's Turn 3 crash brought out another yellow he stopped along with the rest of the leaders while Kevin Lepage did not. Lepage was ahead of Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Biffle and Bill Elliott.
Lepage led the first lap under green, but Harvick passed him the next time by and Biffle reclaimed the top spot on the next lap. He stayed there until a caution for debris on Lap 274, but even though Harvick won the race off pit road and had the lead for the restart, Biffle stormed back by in Turn 3 on Lap 279 and built a solid lead until another yellow for debris on Lap 311 brought the leaders back to pit road.
Biffle's car, however, had developed a problem with its clutch and he had trouble getting his car off pit road quickly. That allowed McMurray, Harvick, Terry Labonte, Elliott and Burton to beat Biffle off pit road for the restart on Lap 316.
Robby Gordon, who'd been running in or near the top 10 all day, had a tire go down on Lap 333. He hit the wall in Turn 1, hit it again in Turn 2 and then tried to wrestle his car down pit road without full control of its steering.
That brought the leaders back down pit road for fresh tires and final adjustments. This time, Terry Labonte's crew got his No. 5 Chevrolet off pit road first and into the lead just ahead of Harvick, Johnson and McMurray, setting up the final run for the checkered flag.