The Callahan Report: Bobby Labonte returns to winning form at Pocono
By Terry Callahan
July 29, 2001
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
"Our car was great all day on long runs," Labonte said after the exciting victory. "We've had a tough season but yesterday our car kept getting better and better. It finally feels like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Labonte saw Earnhardt Jr. as a tiny object through his windshield with 15 laps to go in the Pennsylvania 500. Lapped traffic and a Labonte's strong car made that image larger and larger as the laps wore on. With two laps remaining, the 2000 champion was inches behind Earnhardt Jr. He darted inside and then outside, passing Earnhardt Jr. heading into the "tunnel turn" at Pocono. The black tire mark on Labonte's driver side proved how intense the battle was during the final laps.
"I swung back to the inside, went into the corner, made it stick into the Tunnel Turn", sad the defending Winston Cup Champion. "I tried to hold it at the bottom as long as I could and got back on the gas, and the spotter said, 'You got three car lengths on him.' That's what I needed to hear."
Earnhardt Jr. appeared to be on his way to a second victory of the year. His first win at the Pepsi 400 earlier this month was covered with controversy. Earnhardt Jr. was accused of being given an unfair advantage by NASCAR through the use of selective restrictor plates.
"It ran out of gas off that last corner" Earnhardt Jr. said. "But that was a heck of a race I had there with Bobby (Labonte). That was a lot of fun. I had to play a little dirty 'cause he was a little better than I was. I really wanted to win here because this is a real fun track."
The battle between Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte was a surprise. Jeff Gordon, a three time Winston Cup Champion, dominated much of the race. He led the most laps. A late race pit stop to replace a bad tire put him back in the pack for the final 40 laps. Gordon charged back to an eighth place finish at the end.
"You can't just have the best car," admitted Gordon. "You can't just have the best pit stops. You've got to have the whole package. Unfortunately the cautions didn't fall the right way for us. We got behind. We weren't the best on fuel mileage today."
Heading into the race Sunday, Gordon and Dale Jarrett were tied for the points lead. Ricky Rudd was only eight points behind Jarrett and Gordon.
Jarrett had to use a provisional start to get into the race. He patiently entered the top ten before he was collected in a crash on the 151st lap. His crew worked furiously on the car, getting him back into the action before the green flag fell again. Jarrett crashed hard again on the first lap of green flag racing. He was uninjured but done for the day.
Gordon is the points leader with 2847. He leads Rudd by 45 points. Dale Jarrett dropped to third is the season standings with 2735. Tony Stewart and Sterling Marlin round out the top five.
The teams head to the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the prestigious Brickyard 400 next weekend. Gordon, Labonte, Jarrett, and Rudd are all former winners of the event.
I'm excited about going to Indianapolis," said Gordon. "We did what we needed to do in the points race (gained 45 points over Dale Jarrett), but we wanted to win. Maybe we can take this momentum to Indianapolis."
Whether Gordon can get his third win at Indianapolis remains to be seen. There are 42 other drivers with the same plan…winning at Indy.