Bobby Labonte scores win in Atlanta

HAMPTON, GA - Bobby Labonte charged past Jeff Gordon with nine laps to go to win the Spring 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The win is his twentieth career victory and sixth at the fame Atlanta quad oval. Labonte dominated much of today's ...

Bobby Labonte scores win in Atlanta

HAMPTON, GA - Bobby Labonte charged past Jeff Gordon with nine laps to go to win the Spring 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The win is his twentieth career victory and sixth at the fame Atlanta quad oval. Labonte dominated much of today's race leading 172 of 325 laps.

"The #24 just kept us honest," said Labonte. "That son of a gun was so fast. I had to drive real hard out there at the end to keep up with him 'cause he was so fast."

Bobby Labonte.
Photo by Thomas Chemris.

It's Labonte's first win in over a year, his last victory having been last spring in Martinsville. The victory moves him from 13th in the championship points to fifth.

Jeff Gordon held off the charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. and took second, his best finish of 2003.

"Bobby was so strong," said Gordon. "I learned some things from him today. He's so good around this place. I couldn't be more happy for this DuPont Chevrolet team. What an awesome job to come from 30th to the front. Great pit stops, that's the kind of team we know we can be and hopefully we'll start doing that every weekend."

Earnhardt, Jr. backed up his strong run at Vegas last weekend with a third place finish.

"Finally we have something to make us pretty happy," said Earnhardt. "Last weeks run and this weeks run, we got a lot of points gained back.

"The car was good. We had really an awkward set-up in the car that I didn't feel real confident in and it worked so, new body had to change the whole thing. We didn't run anything like we'd ran when we run so good here in the past. So, I was real nervous today, but good run for us."

Matt Kenseth was fourth moving him into the championship points lead and reigning champion Tony Stewart finished fifth.

"We lost our power-steering before that last restart," said Kenseth. "It was weird. It wasn't like I just didn't have power-steering, it was like it was 10 times harder to steer than if it didn't have it, so I just kind of had to hang on the last 10 laps.

"But we had a great car. I think we were first in class. It was almost impossible to run with those Chevy's, so I feel real proud to bring a Ford up front and get a top five out of it."

Stewart, who was battling the flu commented, "Just a long day, the way we started this race without a caution for 90 laps or however long we went, that's pretty grueling on ya, but you know this place is so fast and the corners are so long that you gotta be feeling real good to make it through the whole day here and I probably hurt the team as much as anything at the end."

"Just felt puny at the end, the last 100 laps and was getting a little bit tired and that's what happens when you get a cold once and awhile and can't get it shook for a whole week, you just lose your energy."

Rounding out the top ten were Elliott Sadler, Jimmy Spencer, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek and Ryan Newman.

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Tenth-place Newman's day started on the pole, where he led the races initial 20 laps. At lap 21, Bobby Labonte managed to get around Newman to assume the lead of the race until lap 37 when Nemechek would grab the lead back from Labonte.

With 279 laps left, the race's biggest gainers were J. Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. Gordon, who started 30th, moved up to 6th and Earnhardt Jr. had shifted from 37th to seventh.

Newman continued to fall backwards through the top ten, and at lap 48 had to pit early due to a flat tire under green flag conditions.

Lap 60 saw the rest of the leaders come to pit road for service under green. Leader Nemechek had right side troubles, and restarted ninth. The top five after stops was J. Gordon, B. Labonte, Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Newman.

Gordon led nine laps, before the faster No. 18 Gibbs Chevy of B. Labonte sailed past the No. 24 Hendrick Chevy taking off to a 4.4 second lead over the rest of the field.

At this point in the race, with such a long caution free run, only 24 cars remained on the lead lap.

Earnhardt Jr. continued his march to the head of the pack, working himself into the third position by lap 83.

The second round of green flag pit stops commenced at lap 114, and after the leaders cycled through the top five shook out to be B. Labonte, J. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Rusty Wallace.

After 135 green-flag circuits, the races first caution came out at lap 136, when the No. 6 Roush Ford of Mark Martin blew an engine. Caution allows pole-sitter Newman and Sadler to get laps back, placing only 12 cars on the lead lap.

All of the lead cars came in for service on pit road, and after the stops the top five were B. Labonte, J. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and R. Wallace.

Kurt Busch in the No. 97 Roush Ford brought out the second caution of the day at lap 143, busting a piston and ending his day. As the field approached the start/finish line to take the caution, the No. 11 Ford of Brett Bodine and the No. 23 Dodge of Kenny Wallace made contact on the backstretch. Bodine's damage was terminal, but K. Wallace was able to change four tires and restart 2-laps down.

In the top five after stops were B. Labonte, J. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr, Stewart and Johnson.

Outside pole-sitter Bill Elliott, making his 699th career start, had to retire the No. 9 Evernham Dodge at lap 166 after losing an engine.

"It had a real bad vibration in the motor and it just quit," said Elliott. "We started out really loose, and then we kept getting it better and better. We didn't have anything for the 18 and that group. They're just in a class kind of by themselves, and nobody else is running with 'em. This has just been par for the year for us, but we'll get better."

R. Wallace brought out the races third yellow at lap 175, after making contact with the wall in turn three.

"I just let it get right up there against the wall," said Wallace. "And that was pretty much it. I think we could have easily had a top five. The car was strong enough to finish up there I believe, but I just got up there in the marbles and that was it."

After restart for R. Wallace's incident, the top five were B. Labonte, J. Gordon, Nemechek, Earnhardt Jr., and Stewart.

Fourth caution of the day came out at lap 186, when the No. 49 BAM Dodge of Ken Schrader blew an engine.

All of the leaders with the exception of the No. 8 DEI Chevy of Earnhardt Jr. would elect to pit under the caution. Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead followed by Newman, Nemechek, B. Labonte and J. Gordon.

With 133 laps left, the third place car of Nemechek had to come back to pit road to tighten a loose right side lug nut. Nemechek was able to rejoin the field on the tale end of the lead lap in 12th position.

Jamie McMurray caused the fifth caution flag of the event at lap 208 after a right rear tire on the No. 42 Ganassi Dodge went down. Leaders after restart were Stewart winning the race off pit road followed by J. Gordon, B. Labonte, Earnhardt Jr., and Johnson.

Stewart led the next 16 laps, until the No. 24 Hendrick Chevy of J. Gordon jetted past the No. 20 Gibbs Chevy for the top position.

Troubles continued for pole-sitter Newman, when on lap 248 the No. 12 Penske Dodge lost powering steering. Newman slid backward through the field to 12th, the last car on the lead lap.

"The power steering was on its way out at lap 177," said Newman. "I drove without power steering at Watkins Glen last year. I did it in the midgets quite a few times, but I've never done it for that long. I'm pretty tired. We had a top-five car, but that doesn't do any good when you're at a place like this. We were loose at first and kept getting looser and looser. After that was got the car really good. NASCAR has definitely got to look at these Chevrolets because there's a bunch of them up front. We've had two top 10s in a row, but that's just top 10s. We need top fives and wins. We're not going to get them this way.

"I could manhandle the car for a few laps without the power steering," Newman continued. "It was a handful after that. A top 10 run is pretty decent, but I know we're capable of a lot more than that. We'll go on from here and see what happens. We gained a few more positions in the standings today, so we'll keep on working hard and try again next week at Darlington."

Newman was still holding on to the last spot on the lead lap when the field embarked on the events final green flag pit stops at lap 264 with J. Gordon still in the lead. After all the lead lap cars cycled through, the top five were J. Gordon, B. Labonte, Kenseth, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.

J. Gordon's lead would not last long, with 43 laps left; B. Labonte caught the back bumper of the No. 24 Chevy soaring past J. Gordon for the lead.

Engine woes continued for teams, as the No. 21 Woods Brothers Ford blew an engine with less than 25 laps left, and then after pit stops and the restart, the No. 99 Roush Ford of Jeff Burton and the No. 48 Chevy of Johnson both lost their engines with 18 circuits remaining bringing out the races 7th caution.

The race restarted with 13 laps left to be complete, with B. Labonte followed by J. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Sadler.

J. Gordon had the quickest restart, which allowed him to motor past B. Labonte for the top spot. One lap later, Labonte pushed his No. 18 Chevy to the high side and was able to get back around J. Gordon to take the win.

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