Labonte turned a fast lap of 185.682 mph in his Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac to edge Rusty Wallace in first-round qualifying for Sunday's 500-mile event.
"I love this track. I won my first race here in 1995, and it will always hold a special place in my heart," said Labonte, who became the first driver in the 40-year history of the track to win the pole for all three Winston Cup events in the same year. Labonte also started up front for The Winston all-star event and the Coca-Cola 600, both held in late May on the 1.5-mile, high-banked trioval.
Labonte didn't win either of those events, but a victory Sunday would enhance his bid to overtake Dale Jarrett atop the 1999 driver standings. Jarrett has a 251-point lead over Labonte with six races left on the schedule.
"Hopefully we'll be competitive Sunday," Labonte said. "The crew prepares great race cars, and it makes my job a lot of fun."
Labonte has five poles and four victories this year, but that hasn't been enough to make up for the consistency of Jarrett, who has a circuit-best 23 top-10 finishes. Jarrett put himself in solid position for No. 24 by qualifying ninth on Wednesday night with a lap of 183.680.
"That's a pretty good lap," Jarrett said. "That will get us in a decent spot, and we can get ready to race."
Wallace said he was satisfied with his 185.033, mainly because it was a significant improvement over what he had been able to do in his Ford in pre-qualifying practice runs.
"I didn't think I could run that quick," he said. "The car was perfect when I qualified. It stuck real good in the front and the back."
Doing well at Charlotte is nothing unusual for Martin, who has finished seventh or better, including two victories, in the last eight Winsto Cup races on the track.
Jeff Gordon has also been strong at Charlotte, winning six poles, but he had his share of problems Wednesday. Gordon qualified a distant 22nd with a lap of 182.506, one week after winning at Martinsville Speedway in his first event with new crew chief Brian Whitesell.
"The last time we were here in May, we didn't qualify very good, either," Gordon said. "We used to be able to knock off some awesome laps here. I'm not sure what's changed. We just haven't had that good feel where you can drive that thing in deep and jump back in the throttle."
The list of those who failed to make the field Wednesday night, when the top 25 spots for Sunday's starting grid were set, included Jeff Burton, winner of this year's Coca-Cola 600.
Burton's Ford got loose between the first and second turns, and even though he was able to save it, he finished with a speed of 175.262.
Joe Nemechek's speed of 179.677 also wasn't fast enough to qualify, but that wasn't his only problem. Nemechek slammed into the concrete retaining wall coming out of the fourth turn, and his Chevrolet caught fire as he took the checkered flag to complete his one-lap run.
Nemechek was uninjured, but his team had plenty of work to do to get the car ready for Sunday's 334-lap race.
Burton, Nemechek and the rest of the drivers who failed to crack the top 25 had the choice of standing on their first-round speeds or trying again Thursday, when a second round of time trials was set to determine the rest of the 43-car grid.
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