The Callahan Report: Excitement returns to Michigan, Bobby Labonte takes the Pepsi 400
22 August 1999
By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
Even Labonte thought he would have to settle for a top five finish. He didn't think he had a chance at winning as he watched Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt swap first and second place late in the race. From where Labonte was sitting, it looked like Dale Earnhardt had shed 10 years and was headed for victory lane.
Suddenly, a lane opened up as Gordon and Earnhardt continued their intense battle. Labonte wasted no time closing in and taking the lead with seventeen laps remaining in the race. Labonte drove his Interstate Batteries Pontiac down to the white line in the first turn to make the pass.
"It was pretty awesome," said Labonte. "If you didn't clear both of them, you knew you were going to be in trouble. We kept trying that move a few times. Jeff and Dale were awful strong there and I couldn't get by them."
"I just drove off in turn 1 on the inside and I put a slide job on Dale," Labonte continued. "He had to back off. I got up front and that made a big difference."
Labonte has had success at Michigan before. He proved that he can still drive on the two-mile oval Sunday. Labonte has won at Michigan on two previous occasions. This time, his win came in front of a packed house. The estimated attendance at the Pepsi 400 was more than 153,000.
Part of the reason Dale Jarrett was able to run away from his competition in June was due to a caution-free race. Sunday's race had plenty of metal bending action as well as racing. The caution flag flew six times during the race, keeping the cars close on the track and allowing others to adjust their cars to be more competitive.
The final caution period came when rookie sensation Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton came together on the front straightaway. Burton was passing Jimmy Spencer and pulled in front of Stewart to get a "push". Burton didn't realize Stewart was going so fast and at the last moment, Burton went back up the track to get out of Stewart's way.
It was too late. Stewart had already gone low to the flat part of the track in an effort to avoid hitting Burton. When Stewart came back up the track, the two cars hit. Burton lost control. Stewart continued to finish in third place, his best Winston Cup result to date.
Jeff Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion, blames his hard racing with Earnhardt for not being able to challenge Labonte at the end. Earnhardt suffered a similar fate.
"Any time you come up on Earnhardt, he's going to be the toughest guy to pass, especially when he's leading a race," said Gordon. "Unfortunately, I was the guy who had to try to get by him, and it killed me."
"I was having a good time, but my time ran out," Earnhardt said. "My tires tightened up. I'd like to have been there at the end."
Earnhardt fell to fifth place at the finish behind Labonte, Gordon, Stewart, and current Winston Cup points leader, Dale Jarrett.
The most exciting moment of the race came on the 182nd circuit. Stewart, after starting in 37th position and since tangling with Burton, nosed his way into the four car battle. Stewart, Labonte, Gordon, and Earnhardt were four abreast before Labonte took charge on the next lap.
"When you get side-by-side to the corner you just don't go as fast," Labonte said. "So we got back in line behind Jeff, and he and Dale got together. I got low. The next thing you know I had a run down the front straightaway."
As a result of his fourth place finish, Jarrett extended his lead in the standings. He had a 300 point lead over Mark Martin before the race. His margin was 314 points after the Pepsi 400. Martin finished in the seventh position.