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The Callahan Report: Bobby Labonte gets Darlington win in true 'Labor Day' effort

3 September 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel

Bobby Labonte
DARLINGTON, SC: Holiday weekends are supposed to be relaxing times. Labor day weekend in particular is reserved to honor America's working men and women. While the rest of the United States relaxed, the NASCAR Winston Cup teams head to Darlington for what they knew would be a weekend of hard work. None of those teams worked harder than Joe Gibbs' Interstate Batteries Racing Team. They worked hard, they worked fast, and they worked overtime. It was all worth it as Bobby Labonte grabbed his first ever Southern 500 victory.

The racing weekend started out dismal for Labonte. The current Winston Cup point leader crashed his primary car early. The crackup forced Labonte to run his backup car in a race that is extremely trying even with the best of equipment. Labonte found himself using a provisional starting spot to make the race. It would be a long haul to the front with 36 cars in front of him.

Labonte found more disappointment during the final practice session on Saturday. His car responded terribly to any changes the team made. The car was so bad; the team placed a totally new setup on the car for the race. Labonte was truly going to have a "labor-day" ahead of him with an unproven car and plenty of traffic. Labonte's pit crew made those worries easier to handle.

Sometimes, having the best car is not as important as having the best team. Bobby Labonte openly gave all the credit to his team for winning the race for him. His crew blistered the other pit crews on the final two pit stops. Labonte went from fifth place to first on the final stop under a caution period.

The green flag never waved again as the skies opened up and the Southern 500 ended under a drenched darkness. Labonte never had to pass a car on the track to gain those final valuable positions. His team won the race for him.

The race, which had a 1:00 p.m. start, was delayed more than two hours by rain after running only 37 laps. Considering six caution flags and the red flag for rain, darkness became an issue. The checkered flag flew six hours and fifteen minutes after the race had started. The Labor Day weekend had turned into a marathon of work for all the teams.

Darlington and rain seem to go together lately. Jeff Burton, who finished in second place behind Labonte Sunday, won both Darlington races in 1999. They were rain-shortened events. Burton and his team had a work-filled day as well. They were chasing the setup of the Roush Racing Ford all day.

"We were really bad for a little while" said Burton about his day. "We were great to start and then we were really bad and then we were even worse than really bad. Then we slowly started bringing it back"

Dale Earnhardt is another driver who is used to working the holiday at Darlington. The 'Intimidator' has nine previous wins at Darlington. Only one driver in history has more. Earnhardt was in position to tie David Pearson's ten wins at Darlington Sunday. Earnhardt was positioned in third place before the final rain clouds spilled onto the Darlington asphalt. He will resume the quest in 2001.

Proving that Darlington is a track for racing veterans, Jeff Gordon finished in forth place. Gordon was shooting for his fifth win at the Southern 500 Sunday. In a season that has been uncharacteristically trying for the three-time series champion, the 2000 running of the Southern 500 was a bright spot for Gordon. He maintained tenth place in the season standings with his top-five finish.

The defending Winston Cup Champion, Dale Jarrett, continues to keep his hopes alive for a repeat. Jarrett finished in fifth place. His consistent top-five finishes have left him only 111 points behind Bobby Labonte in the 2000 chase for the Winston Cup. Jarrett's result Sunday was accomplished without any racing strategy.

"I don't know that we had any strategy all day" Jarrett said. "You just had to kind of play it by ear. Whatever the weather was gonna let you do you had to do that."

Ward Burton, the winner of the spring race at Darlington, was a favorite to win again at the track that has been passionately dubbed "too tough to tame". The older of the two racing Burton brothers was in position to win. Burton, like the winner Labonte, was driving a Pontiac. It was only the second time in 51 races that Pontiac had visited victory lane at Darlington.

Jeremy Mayfield proved to be the dominant driver in the early race stages. Mayfield ran away to a three second lead. He led 104 of the first 120 laps. Mayfield luck ran out when he came up on slower traffic (Dave Marcis) and got a taste of Darlington's concrete.

"I was trying to pass Dave Marcis and I guess I came up into him and got into the wall," said Mayfield. "He wouldn't cut me no slack and it was just racing."

Racing legend Darrell Waltrip has made many trips to Darlington. His race Sunday will be his final one at the historic facility since he is retiring at the end of the 2000 season. Waltrip had a good day going until he faced electrical problems. Waltrip was able to lead the race in the early running. He finished in 42nd place.

"Well, I liked it when I was up front," Waltrip said of his final Darlington performance. "That was fun. It kind of brought back a lot of good memories, but this hasn't been fun here (in the garage)."

NASCAR heads to Richmond, Virginia next weekend for a night race. In between now and then, they will get a day off. It is well deserved.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.