Labonte Outsmarts Earnhardt For IROC Win

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Bobby Labonte never had to worry about one of Dale Earnhardt's signature last-lap passes.

Labonte held off a late charge from Earnhardt Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, then watched from his rearview mirror as The Intimidator got lost in a pack of cars in the International Race of Champions.

The traffic prevented yet another Earnhardt victory at Talladega Superspeedway and allowed Labonte to cruise to his first-ever IROC victory in the second leg of the all-star series.

"First place is not where you want to be on the last lap of an IROC race because it makes for some hair-raising moments," Labonte said. "In this case, it worked out. But it was still pretty nerve wracking."

Labonte pulled his violet Pontiac Firebird into the lead with 10 laps to go, but quickly had Earnhardt on his tail. Earnhardt, who won the event here last year by passing Rusty Wallace in turn four on the final lap and has a record 13 overall wins at Talladega, bided his time while plotting his strategy for another late move.

He peeked to the outside of Labonte once with five laps to go, but Labonte blocked him. Earnhardt tried again with two laps to go, but Labonte again held off the challenge.

Then, on the final lap, Earnhardt slid low on the track to make a move but it backfired when Mark Martin didn't follow and raced past him. Earnhardt was left alone on the outside, and when he tried to get back in line, Jeff Gordon blocked him and Earnhardt was stuck in the middle of the pack in the backstretch.

"Nobody is ever going to win but Dale Earnhardt if everybody stays behind him," Martin said. "He is the master, so I had to try something different."

Martin's strategy made it easy for Labonte to coast into victory lane. Martin finished second, .073 seconds behind.

"Before Earnhardt was able to make a move me, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon countered what he was doing," Labonte said. "That slowed things up behind me and allowed me to block Mark and hang on."

Earnhardt, tied with Al Unser Jr. with a record 11 IROC victories, finished third. He is the defending series champion and also won the first leg of this year's series at Daytona International Speedway.

Jeff Burton finished fourth, followed by Gordon and Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate.

For Labonte, who is participating full-time in the IROC series for the first time this year, the victory was a bright spot in what has been a disappointing weekend.

Both he and Stewart blew cylinders in the Pontiacs they drive on the Winston Cup circuit during Friday's qualifying for the DieHard 500. Neither made the field on the first day and Labonte, the Winston Cup series points leader, spent Saturday morning working to correct a problem in the setup.

But, during the IROC race, which pits the drivers from two American circuits in identically prepared cars, he took the lead two different times and led 15 of the 38 laps in the 101-mile race.

The four-race series is supposed to be a true test of driving among champions. Eight of the drivers represented Winston Cup, one represented the Busch Grand National Series and three came from the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

IRNLS champion Greg Ray finished seventh, Dale Jarrett eighth and Rusty Wallace ninth.

Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner, was 10th. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is racing full-time this season on the Winston Cup series but is the Busch representative, finished 11th and never challenged.

IRNLS driver Mark Dismore finished last after a mechanical problem forced him out of the race with two laps to go.

The $760,000 purse will be divided once the series is complete. The champion will earn $225,000. The series resumes June 10 at Michigan Speedway.

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