NASCAR Winston Cup Series DieHard 500: Terry Labonte Wins
12 October 1997TALLADEGA, AL -- It was a wild run today at the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. The drivers were getting after it and from the first lap it looked as though they were racing on the last lap for the checkers. Cars running three and four wide were not uncommon. That is until lap 140 when a 23-car wreck took out the front runners and left the field a shadow of its former self. It was Terry Labonte who was able to dodge the lap 140 incident and go on to win the DieHard 500. Terry Labonte crossed the line 0.146 seconds ahead of his brother Bobby Labonte. John Andretti, Ken Schrader and the pole sitter Ernie Irvan rounded out the top-five.
The race started as a wild one even by Talladega standards. The field that normally seems to ride for a few laps to get a feel for things started tangling from the get go. The occurrences of three wide racing - through the corners - was all too common.
The cars, all seemingly exactly matched, roamed the track in a pack of 35 to 38 with little breathing room for anyone. Lead changes were common as no one would ever get a chance to run away from the pack.
The first caution of the day flew on lap 53 when Billy Standridge spun out of turn 2. The single-car incident came just as some were starting their pit stops. Sterling Marlin was on his way down pit road when the caution flew. He hot shoed his way back out and kept himself from going down a lap.
After the field went back to green, on lap 59, they stared right back to dicing it up. The battles for the lead were hotly contested. Sacks and Earnhardt - door-to door. Then Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace - door-to-door for several laps with the pair swapping the lead 4 times in 5 laps.
The caution again flew when Wally Dallenbach got a bump onto the backstraight grass by Michael Waltrip. Dallenbach drove down the grass, at 190 miles per hour, until he ran out of room and needed to make turn three. Dallenbach was lucky as he did a gentle loop and just brushed the wall. His car though received heavy damage when the flat spotted front tires blew out on his ride back to the pits. Dallenbach, who had a good run going said, "It was fun while it lasted. The guys did a great job on the car and it was awesome."
A cycle of pit stops under the caution shuffled the running order a bit. It was Jimmy Spencer on the point followed by Marlin, Bobby Labonte and Irvan.
The racing took right up where it left off with Spencer and Marlin dueling each other for the top-spot. Marlin was able to get by Spencer but not away. Spencer battled his way back to the lead on lap 123 only to hand it over to Terry Labonte on the next lap.
The lead was where you wanted to be as the inevitable was about to happen.
It all started when the field charged down the backstraight in a tight knot on lap 140. Gordon, who claims to have had a left rear tire go down, swerved to the left and bounced off of John Andretti. Andretti, who somehow managed to keep it straight, watched as the melee break loose in his rear view mirror as Gordon swung back and popped the outside wall.
After bouncing off the outside wall Gordon's car careened across the track and hit Dale Earnhardt and spun him around. The track now closing up as car after car piled into each other. Martin hit Irvan. The 40 car of Greg Sacks ended up on the hood of Sterling Marlin's Chevy. The same with Jeremy Mayfield and Jimmy Spencer. The tire smoke was so heavy now that one lost track of who actually hit who. When the smoke finally cleared there were 23 cars damaged - with a few ready for the junkyard.
The series points leaders Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett were all involved in the wreck in some fashion. Jarrett was the only one of the three that was able to escape serious damage. Jarrett was credited with a 21st place finish. Martin and Gordon got some heavy surgery done to their cars and continued on. Martin finished in the 30th position while Gordon finished 35th.
Once the mess was cleaned up Terry Labonte took what was left of the field to green on lap 147. Terry was stout enough to keep Kenny Schrader and John Andretti behind him until lap 181 when Ken Schrader stuck the nose of the Kodiak Chevrolet past for the lead. Terry and his brother Bobby went to work trying to get back around Schrader but Schrader wouldn't give up the lead.
Then help came from John Andretti, who started to push Bobby towards the front. Andretti tried to move past Bobby but got hung out as first Terry then Bobby went by. The Labonte brothers then motored past Kenny Schrader on lap 187. Bobby tried to get past Terry, but with a few blocking moves Terry was able to drive to his first victory in the 1997 season.
After the race Terry Labonte, whose team just went through a major shake up when crew chief Gary DeHart stepped aside, said "I didn't want to be the defending champion and not win a race. We came close early in the year and came up a little bit short. It was nice to be able to win a race, and this was a big one.
"I didn't have a strategy really. I just tried to get back to the front. My car was awful good. I had a run at 'em pretty good and was able to get by John (Andretti) and Kenny (Schrader) both. This is the same car we raced earlier this year. We finished second both times with it down at Daytona and got a sixth down here the first race. I knew if I could get back to the front I might be able to hold them off, but I didn't know if I could get there."
Bobby Labonte, who got Pontiac its best ever restrictor plate finish said of his second-place finish, "I think I needed one more lap to get around Terry because the #98 (of Andretti) was coming up awfully strong. I think he would have helped me because I helped him a little earlier. We (the brothers Labonte) had a plan. We had it already figured out when we were going to go. It just didn't quite work out. Well, it worked for Terry but it didn't work for me."
John Andretti, who had the two big incidents of the year start directly near him, sailed on to a third place finish. "They said the 5 car would go with me, but I'm never sure of anything. I had Ernie up there and he was in a Ford. Bobby helped me a lot. It was just real fortunate that we didn't get knocked out in those crashes that certainly got us beat up. We were real fortunate.
The points advantage Gordon has got a little slimmer after both Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett finished higher than Gordon. Gordon with 4321 points is 110 ahead of Mark Martin and 155 ahead of Jarrett. Jeff Burton holds onto fourth place and Terry Labonte was able to move up a spot to fifth dropping Earnhardt back to sixth.
The race that held an average speed of 156.601 miles per hour, took 3 hours 11 minutes 36 seconds to complete. There were an astonishing 32 lead changes among 16 drivers (a season-to-date record) and the caution was displayed four times for 22 laps.
After a weekend off, the next race on the schedule will be the ACDelco 400 on October 26th to be run at the 1.017 mile North Carlolina Motor Speedway.
Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel