Labonte Wins NASCAR Finale


Bobby Labonte's confidence is increasing along with his victory total.

The younger brother of two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte closed the NASCAR season Sunday by capturing the NAPA 500 and reasserting his mastery of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Labonte finished with five victories this season and a runner-up finish to new champion Dale Jarrett.

"To end the year with five wins is just unbelievable," he said.

Now he just might be ready to make a serious run for a title of his own.

"(Jarrett) was the best car every weekend this year. That's why he won," Labonte said. "We had our share of mistakes that we had to fix, but we'll work on that next year."

Labonte wound up 201 points behind Jarrett, who wrapped up the title last week in Homestead, Fla.

"Bobby's going to win his championship," Jarrett said. "He was the man here today, but he's the man at a lot of places."

Labonte, with 12 career victories, won for the fourth time in his last seven starts at this track. This was his third victory since the 1.54-mile oval was redesigned midway through the 1997 season.

His No. 18 Pontiac pulled away at the end of the 325-lap race, finishing about half a straightaway ahead of Jarrett, who passed Jeremy Mayfield for second place on the last lap.

It was the third straight victory for Joe Gibbs Racing, with Labonte adding this win to the two straight by rookie teammate Tony Stewart in Phoenix and Homestead.

Labonte, who started 37th in the 43-car field, took his first lead at lap 91. From that point, Labonte was out front for a race-high 147 laps.

He took the lead for the final time during a restart on lap 290, roaring past Jeff Burton, who had beaten Labonte out of the pits on the last stop by the leaders. Then Labonte pulled steadily ahead, winning by 2.428 seconds.

Nobody had ever won at this track from farther back than 30th, a feat accomplished in 1983 by Dale Earnhardt, who started 36th and finished ninth Sunday.

"We did everything wrong this weekend, but the guys never gave up," Labonte said. "I didn't think we were that good. The last practice was not that good, but we made some changes this morning."

Not all the celebrating was done by Labonte and the Gibbs team. After the race, Jarrett was driven, along with his Robert Yates Racing crew and his family, around the track on a float to the cheers of a crowd estimated at 145,000.

Asked what it feels like to be the champion, he said: "You sit and wonder what this is going to blike and it's even better than what we thought it was going to be."

Jarrett ended the season with four wins, 24 top-fives and 29 top-10s in 34 races.

There were eight caution flags in Sunday's race, slowing Labonte's winning speed to 137.932 mph.

The worst crash of the day, and the only injury, came on lap 198 when Michael Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Rick Mast and Kenny Wallace tangled in the fourth turn. Waltrip, the younger brother of three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip, was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital. He was checked and released after being knocked momentarily unconscious.

"I believe Michael had a left rear tire flat," Terry Labonte said. "It broke loose with him. He saved it and it went back the other way and shot straight up the track. I hit him a ton when he came back across the track."

The top was peeled off Waltrip's Ford so he could be removed with a backboard. Track officials said the driver was awake and alert when taken from the car.

Mark Martin, who twice fell far back in the field after pitting with tire problems, came back to finish fourth, followed by Burton, Chad Little and Ricky Rudd, whose string of seasons with at least one victory ended at 16.

Stewart, who set a rookie record with three wins this season, was among the leaders until an air gun jammed during a green flag pit stop on lap 271. The long pit stop cost him a lap and Stewart wound up 15th.

Jeff Gordon, who had won the last two races at Atlanta, had engine failure and finished 38th. That dropped the three-time series champion including 1997 and 1998 to sixth in the points race.

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