Terry Labonte gets emotional Darlington victory

Terry Labonte gets emotional Darlington victory
Sep 1, 2003, 7:42 PM

Every race fan at the record setting sell-out crowd at 'the lady in black' was on their feet to witness Terry Labonte earn his first win in five years. Labonte, who hasn't graced victory lane since March 28, 1999, took the lead after a round of pit ...

Every race fan at the record setting sell-out crowd at 'the lady in black' was on their feet to witness Terry Labonte earn his first win in five years. Labonte, who hasn't graced victory lane since March 28, 1999, took the lead after a round of pit stops on lap 312 and quickly pulled out to a three-second advantage over the field.

"It's really special to me," said Labonte. "I was running with Bill Elliott and was hoping one of us would win it. I think we appreciate this track a little more than the young guys do."

It was a fitting win for the last Labor Day weekend event at Darlington, as Labonte won his first career race here in on September 1, 1980.

"This was one for the old guys," laughed Labonte as Dale Jarrett congratulated him in victory lane.

It was Labonte's first top-ten at Darlington since March of 1998, and 22nd career win for the two-time Winston Cup champion.

The much ballyhooed moving of Darlington's race date to November next season seems forgotten, as this race produced one of the most popular wins since perhaps Earnhardt, Jr.'s victory of the Pepsi 400 after the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt.

Kevin Harvick was about the happiest he's been capturing a second place finish. "I was sitting back there in second thinking if I pass Terry Labonte this crowd is going to hate me.I am extremely happy to see Terry Labonte win."

Jimmie Johnson was third, earning his 13th top ten of the season.

"Terry kicked all of us young guys butts today," Johnson joked. "It's been neat to see those guys (5 team) spirits come up - you can see the competitive fire in their eyes."

Jamie McMurray and Bill Elliott round out the top five.

"I'm real proud of Terry," said Elliott. "He did a heck of a job, and he did what he had to do. There again, track position is everything."

Darlington's Southern 500 started off with a bang, as a multi-car crash slowed the action at lap five. Involved in the melee, were the cars of Michael Waltrip, Jason Leffler, Christian Fittipaldi, Tony Raines, and Rusty Wallace. No one was injured in the accident.

"The year I am having," said Wallace, who finished 36th. "I've never in my career had a year like this. Four DNF's in a row..I need some good luck. I don't know what I am doing bad out there to deserve all this bad luck, but man, the team doesn't deserve it and neither do I or the sponsors. That's two weeks in a row I got caught up in some bad luck. The bad qualifying the past two weeks has hurt us, too. I've got to step that up."

Conditions did not improve on the restart at lap 13, a bottleneck of rear starting cars caused an accordion effect, crippling the cars of Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin; they finished 31st and 33rd respectively. Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle were also caught in the storm but did not sustain significant damage and were able to stay on the track.

"You'd think it was a restart on a quarter-mile somewhere," said a frustrated Marlin. "They took off and somebody jammed the brakes on.I wish they'd learn how to restart. It happens a lot. They just jam the brakes on and tear somebody's stuff up."

The field settled down after the two initial incidents until lap 165 when another multi-car accident slowed the race. It began, when Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon made contact and the No. 41 of Mears shot up the track. The cars of Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, Kenny Wallace and Johnny Benson were also caught up in the skirmish.

"Casey's a good friend of mine, but he needs a spotter," said Gordon. "I know he wouldn't do it on purpose, but it took out a lot of good cars."

Gordon, who was hoping that Darlington would turn his luck around in his quest for a fifth Winston Cup title, saw his hopes slip even further away. His 32nd place effort marks his fourth finish of 28th or worse. Gordon remains fifth in standings, 591 markers short of the lead.

Second place driver in the race for the championship, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also saw his title hopes take a hit. On lap 151, the No. 8 DEI Chevy stalled between turns one and two with rear gear issues. Repairs were made to the Monte Carlo and Earnhardt rejoined the race 11 laps later. He finished 25th.

Pole sitter Ryan Newman, starting from a series-high sixth up front spot, was leading the race until lap 229, when the No. 12 team had problems under the yellow flag. Newman pitted after a spin by the No. 25 of Joe Nemechek brought out the sixth caution. Newman's car stalled on pit road. His team attempted to push-start the Dodge several times, but could not get the car to re-fire.

Newman, who looked to be a shoo-in to score his sixth win of the season leading a race-high 120 laps, apparently unwittingly hit the kill switch on the steering wheel, teammate Rusty Wallace advised Newman to reset the switch; which solved the problem. The mistake was costly. Newman restarted nine laps down, and finished 23rd.

Rookie Greg Biffle ran strong all afternoon, and appeared to be in position to win, leading 70 laps. At lap 312, Biffle was leading at a round of yellow flag pit stops, when flywheel problems caused an unusually slow stop. He left the pits sixth. Troubles continued and on lap 327, Biffle began to slip backwards through the field. He finished 10th.

"It's pretty unfortunate," said Biffle. "My stomach dropped when I had about a four-second lead and the flywheel broke coming off turn two."

Championship leader Matt Kenseth scored his 23rd top-15 of the season, with a 14th place finish. Kenseth's wide berth continues to grow, as he sits comfortably on top -- 389 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Kevin Harvick is third, 415 points behind; while Jimmie Johnson sits fourth --485 markers short.

There were 10 cautions for 55 laps, and 24 lead changes among 12 drivers.

Darlington's Southern 500 moves to November 14th next season, as Fontana, California inherits the Labor Day weekend date. As teams struggled with the sweltering South Carolina heat, they hoped the move to the West Coast would produce more moderate temperatures next season. Ironically, there was 103- degree heat index in Fontana on Sunday.

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