NASCAR Winston Cup Series UAW-GM Quality 500: Pre-Race Report
5 October 1997CONCORD, NC - At this time in the Winston Cup season last year, Jeff Gordon was leading the point standings by, what seemed at the time, a comfortable 111 markers. By the end of the UAW-GM Quality 500, it was barely enough to keep him ahead of teammate Terry Labonte.
Labonte led 129 of the 134-lap event en route to his first career victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon, on the other hand, was relegated to a 31st-place finish when his No. 24 DuPont Automotive Refinishes Chevrolet suffered a cracked cylinder head. The combination allowed Labonte to pull within one scant point of Gordon and was the catalyst that propelled Labonte to his second series championship.
This time around it's Mark Martin who trails Gordon in the title chase. Martin has five races to make up the 135-point deficit between himself and the 1995 Winston Cup champion. The two will line up today next to each other on the second row with Martin's Ford on the inside and Gordon's Chevrolet on the outside.
Jeff Gordon has nine starts at the 1.5-mile superspeedway and has recorded two victories and five top-five finishes but historically has not finished well in the fall event here. The last three 500-milers have yielded finishes of 31st, 30th and 28th.
"This place gets your heart pumping," said the Hendrick Motorsports driver. "It was a good, solid run for us. We've been thinking about Charlotte and running good here. This (sixth place qualifying effort) is the first step to that, but the race is what we're here for."
Roush Racing's Mark Martin would like nothing better than to give his team its first title since joining NASCAR's elite touring division in 1988. "We need to win a championship," said the 38-year old driver. "We've got to finish ahead of Gordon. Starting is one thing, but we've got to finish ahead of him. We need to win this race." Martin has two wins and seven top-five finishes to his credit in 25 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
After capturing the championship last year, Terry Labonte has had a relatively disappointing season. Since holding a three point lead over Gordon after race No. 16 at New Hampshire International Speedway, he has fallen to sixth place in the overall points over the span of ten races. During that time he has scored only four top-10 finishes and four finishes of 35th or worse. The Corpus Christi, TX native is one of six 1996 winners who have yet to score a victory this season.
Labonte is soldiering on this weekend despite losing his crew chief and team manager Gary DeHart earlier this week. DeHart resigned his post and is taking a leave of absence due to personal reasons and is expected to return to Hendrick Motorsports in another capacity sometime in the future.
"Things with Gary caught us off guard a little bit," said Labonte. "We've got a great team. We haven't changed anything. Everybody is still doing the same thing. It's been a little frustrating here, but it hasn't been that bad. The fact we know we have a good team. Our main goal is to concentrate on next year. We're not going to write off this season. We need to win a race. We want to get focused for next year as far as getting our team more consistent and back on the right track for next. season."
The No. 5 Chevrolet driven by Labonte carries a special paint job this weekend. The Spooky Froot Loops Monte Carlo carries the likeness of the Frankenstein monster on the hood. Labonte is two for four in cars with special paint schemes over the past two seasons. "I won at North Wilkesboro (1996 - Ironman car). I won at Charlotte (1996 - Honey Nut Corn Flakes) and finished second at California (1997 - Tony the Tiger). We ran over a piece of debris and blew out the right front tire at Michigan (in June), but we were running good in the the Tony the Tiger car. We ran it twice. We're planning on running this one just once, but if it runs good, we might run it again."
Geoff Bodine brought a brand new car to Charlotte and ripped off a lap good enough to win his first Busch Pole Award of the season. This will be his fourth top-five start in 1997 and his first since the spring race at Martinsville Speedway in April when he qualified third.
"I haven't had too many good qualifying efforts," said Bodine. "To come here and have one it big -- it's real big. There are a lot of people in the grandstands, and this is home. My first win with this team came at this track in the Winston (1994)."
Bodine, seeking his first win since April of 1994 is confident that he has a legitimate shot at reaching victory lane this afternoon. "Yeah we can win," he declared. "You're darn right we can win. We're running good. It's no different than any race. The first thing you've got to do is finish. But you've got to have a good-handling car. We've been starting the races out really good, we just haven't been finishing as well as we'd like to. Hopefully, that will change this week."
The Chemung, NY native stands to win $15,200 in the form of the Unocal Challenge if he can win this race from the pole. In 75 series events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 11 of them have been won from the top spot.
Ernie Irvan had trouble during yesterday afternoon's Happy Hour session when an electrical fire broke out in his No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford. NASCAR officials informed the Robert Yates Racing team that Technical Director Gary Nelson deemed the car repairable so they went to work on the damaged Thunderbird. According to the Winston Cup rule book, a primary car must be damaged beyond repair before the team is allowed to prepare a back-up car.
The crew remained in the NASCAR garage until 6:30 pm last evening replacing all of the wiring and fuel lines (from the dash and firewall forward) in their Thunderbird. Team members believe the fire was caused by a fuel leak and may be related to the fire that Dale Jarrett experienced last weekend during practice at Martinsville Speedway.
Today's UAW-GM Quality 500 will get underway at 1:10 pm (EDT). Television coverage will be provided by WTBS while PRN will handle the radio side.
Lori Vizza -- The Auto Channel