Labonte wins MBNA 500

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 10, 2003

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- Bobby Labonte once again mastered Atlanta Motor Speedway, fighting off a late challenge from Jeff Gordon to win Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.

Labonte dominated at times during the 325-lap event and appeared to have things totally under control after passing Gordon for the lead with 44 laps left.

But Jeff Burton brought out a caution flag on lap 308 when his engine blew and he scraped the fourth-turn wall.

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That gave Gordon a shot at Labonte on the restart on lap 313, and he took advantage. Gordon pushed the nose of his No. 24 Chevrolet under Labonte's No. 18 Chevy and finally nosed in front on the backstretch.

Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champion, stayed with Gordon, got right on his rear bumper and made him wiggle in the fourth turn. Labonte then shoved his way alongside as the two got to the flagstand, then zoomed into the lead as the leaders drove into turn one on the 1 1/2-mile quad-oval.

Moments later, Labonte began pulling away from Gordon, driving off to a 20 car-length lead over the next few laps and winning by 1.274 seconds -- half a straightaway. There were 23 lead changes, but Labonte led a race-high 172 laps.

Gordon ''just kept us honest,'' Labonte said. ''That guy was just so fast. The restarts were terrible, but the car was good.''