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Labonte outduels Gordon at Pepsi 400

BROOKLYN, Mich.

Monday, August 23, 1999

BROOKLYN, Mich. – The sight of Dale Earnhardt leading late in a race is just about a NASCAR driver’s worst dream. Jeff Gordon beside him turns it into a nightmare. Yet that’s what Bobby Labonte had to deal with Sunday in the Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway. He passed both of them for his fourth win of the season, but he wouldn’t recommend it as a steady diet.

”If you didn’t clear both of them, you knew you were going to be in trouble,” Labonte said.

The victory was the 11th in Labonte’s Winston Cup career and his third in 15 races at the superspeedway. He led four times for 46 of the race’s 200 laps.

Still, it came as something of a surprise because no Pontiac had won at Michigan since Rusty Wallace in 1989, and Labonte’s was no better than 19th in qualifying.

”My car was good all day,” Labonte said. ”We threw some stuff at it. It was junk yesterday afternoon.

”It was pretty neat that we could do that.”

Labonte kept his cool, waiting for just the right time to go after Earnhardt and Gordon. He made his move on lap 183, diving low into the first turn.

”We kept trying that move a few times,” Labonte said. ”Jeff and Dale were awful strong there and I couldn’t get by them.”

Unlike the June race at Michigan, when points leader Dale Jarrett won easily in a caution-free race, there was plenty of bumping and grinding this time. The result was six cautions for 26 laps.

The final caution came on lap 162, when rookie Tony Stewart tapped Jeff Burton, causing him to spin out and hit the wall past turn 4. When the race was restarted five laps later, the game was on.

Earnhardt and Gordon went after each other for the lead, sometimes separated by no more than a half-car length. Labonte watched comfortably from a few feet back, just waiting.

”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, who sought his sixth win of the season. ”Unfortunately, I was the guy who had to try to get by him, and it killed me.”

Stewart – who started 37th – caught up with Labonte on lap 182 and all four cars staged one of those heart-stopping, crowd-pleasing laps that make the NASCAR circuit so popular.

Gordon, Labonte and Earnhardt each nosed ahead briefly before Labonte took the lead for good.

”I got in front of the 3 car (Earnhardt) and I don’t know if I ever let off in turn 1, because I needed to get in front of him,” Labonte said. ”I knew that if he ever got on my right rear, he was going to come back by me.

”So, I got in front of him and set sail for a little bit.”

Once in the lead, Labonte pulled steadily away from the Chevrolet of Gordon, beating him by .865 seconds, averaging 144.332 mph.

Earnhardt’s Chevy began to lose traction in the turns, and he fell back, finishing fifth behind the Pontiac of Stewart and the Ford of Jarrett.

”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.”

Labonte, who has won twice this season at Long Pond, Pa., and once at Dover, Del., remained third in the point standings. Jarrett, who went in with a comfortable 300-point lead over Mark Martin picked up another 14 points. Martin finished seventh.

”We’d like to win, but more than anything, if we can finish in the top five, we know they’ll have a difficult time catching us,” Jarrett said.

Gordon, trying to become the first driver in 21 years to win three consecutive titles, moved from fifth to fourth in the standings, but he remains 467 points behind Jarrett.

There were 23 lead changes involving 10 cars before a crowd of 153,532.