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The Callahan Report: Excitement Returns as Bobby Labonte Wins at Pocono

21 June 1999

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
Bobby Labonte
LONG POND, PA: A week ago, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series put on its most boring show of the season. The 400 miler at Michigan International Speedway was a caution-free one-man-show, with Dale Jarrett running away from everyone.

Things change. It didn't take long for the Pocono 500 to become more exciting than the Michigan race. In fact, it was one of the most unpredictable races contested this year. With 40 laps to go, the eventual winner was in 23rd position. Bobby Labonte used his four fresh tires to charge to the front of the pack, capturing the 13th victory of his Winston Cup career.

Labonte visited victory lane three weeks ago in Dover, Delaware. The win at Pocono places Labonte into serious contention for the coveted NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. He is more concerned with consistency than he is with the Championship. He believes that hard work will have the by-product of a title.

"I'm not thinking about the points right now,'' said Labonte . "You figure if you do your job week in, week out, and be consistently in the top five, you'll be all right.''

"We just try to win every race,'' he continued. "You want to do good every day, but when a bad day comes it doesn't get us down. If we keep running good, we'll be fine."

The call of the race was when Labonte's crew chief, Jimmy Makar, ordered four tires with forty laps remaining in the race. Many of the top contenders took only two tires on their final pit stop. Most thought that track position was going to be the key to winning at Pocono. Makar out-smarted the competition again.

"We had a really, really fast race car, but at the end when we got way back there on the restart, I thought there was no way we would get back,'' Labonte said. "I always want four tires whenever we stop. That was Jimmy's call, and it turned out to be the right one."

Once Labonte made it to the front, he was concerned about the always-threatening Jeff Gordon, defending Winston Cup champion. Gordon was closing on Labonte at the finish, but could not get close enough to challenge for his fourth win of the 1999 season.

"I couldn't believe it,'' Labonte said. "Jeff was awful quick, and I thought he was going to catch us at the end. I could catch the guys, but once I got to them it was hard to pass."

Labonte didn't realize that Gordon was having handling problems. He didn't see what happened to Gordon a few laps before he blew by him on the way to the front. Gordon was leading the race when Jimmy Spencer crept up on him, making him very loose. Spencer went around Gordon like he was sitting still. Gordon went from first to fourth on that sequence.

"It was simple, we just couldn't lead,'' said Gordon. "I knew I was in trouble when we were out in front."

Gordon hung on for a second place finish. It was the seventh time he had finished either first or second in his last eight appearances at Pocono.

Dale Jarrett, the man who won the thrill-less show at Michigan, was also competitive at Pocono. It looked like Jarrett was going to dominate as he took the lead on lap 11 and led for the next hundred miles.

"When the sun was out, my car was a little bit better," Jarrett said. "The car was awful good at the beginning, and I probably ran it too hard."

Jarrett's handling gave him some problems late in the race. He was going towards the front at the finish, but had to settle for third place. The high finish, coupled with Jeff Burton's early crash, allowed Jarrett to widen his series point lead. Burton fell to third in the standings. Bobby Labonte moved to second, 89 points behind Jarrett.

Burton crashed on the second lap of the race. He ran into the back of Wally Dallenbach, Jr. who had slowed down to avoid hitting the cars in front of him. Burton could not get checked-up in time to avoid hitting Dallenbach.

As soon as the green flag waved after clearing the debris from the Burton/Dallenbach crash, Rusty Wallace headed hard into the first turn wall. He cut a tire on the restart and went nearly head-on into the Pocono concrete. Wallace was uninjured in the crash.

The most serious incident in the 11-caution period race was when Dave Marcis crashed exiting the tunnel turn. Marcis' head could be seen pressing against the window netting in the heavy impact. Marcis exited the car with some assistance but was taken to a nearby hospital for observation. Marcis, age 58, is the oldest active driver on the NASCAR circuit.

The race lasted 4 hours and 12 minutes. There were 22 lead changes between 13 different drivers. Labonte earned more than $151,000 of the $2.5 million purse.

Other notables in the top ten were Mark Martin, rookie sensation Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Jeremy Mayfield (defending champion), and Bobby Hamilton.

The Winston Cup drivers will be testing their road-racing skills next weekend at Sears Point Raceway.

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