Bristol Big Step For Labonte

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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Should Bobby Labonte go on to win his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship this year, he may very well point to Saturday night’s goracing.com 500 as one of the most pivotal races of the season.

For a while on Saturday night, it looked as if the current Winston Cup Series points leader wouldn’t make it to the end of the race. In what is always one of the wildest events of the season, Labonte’s night wasn’t without its close calls en route to a 15th place finish to retain a 91-point lead over second place Dale Jarrett.

With 11 races remaining, Labonte knows surviving Bristol was a major obstacle that he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team accomplished.

It all started on Friday when he had trouble in qualifying and was forced to start the race from the 32nd position – on the backstretch and a big disadvantage at the high-banked, half-mile short track. But by the midpoint of the race, the No. 18 Pontiac had worked its way up to eighth place and two spots behind Jarrett. Then the real problems began around lap 300 when Labonte radioed crew chief Jimmy Makar and was complaining of cramps in his right leg, and in fact, asking him to see if a relief driver was available.

On lap 319 while trying to miss the spinning car of Stacy Compton, Labonte was tagged from the rear by Mike Skinner and sent into a spin which dropped him a lap down. Instead of finding out the status of a relief driver, Labonte called back into Makar with a simple command.

"I’ll stay in this race car if it kills me," Labonte said via the radio.

And in doing so, losing only 20 points to Jarrett who is going for a second straight championship.

"All in all, it could have been a lot worse," Labonte explained.

Makar couldn’t help but agree with his driver’s assessment of the situation.

"It wasn’t a bad night, not for everything that happened to us," Makar said. "We really don’t run that bad here usually, we just don’t win. Usually we’re in the top-five or something like that. We just seem to keep getting caught up in other people’s mistakes, and I don’t really know what to do about something like that. It’s hard to prevent those things. If we knew what to do to stop that, then maybe I’d have the answers to a lot of things."

On the contact from Skinner, Labonte said he was simply at the wrong place at the right time.

"We were looking pretty good," he said. "We didn’t have the best car, but it looked like we were going to stay on the lead lap. They had a little wreck up there and then we got turned around, so we lost a lap there. But it was no fault of ours. It really wasn’t the fault of anybody. We were just a victim of circumstances and then we were down a lap the rest of the night. We almost finished the best of the cars a lead lap, but we still didn’t know that. … If we’d have been on the lead lap we might have been on the lead lap."

Despite the fact he thought of getting a relief driver – at one time the possibility existed of it being Chevrolet driver Jeff Gordon – Labonte said he felt fine after getting out of his car.

"I feel better now. I just had a cramp in my right leg so bad there about halfway through the race (and) it never would go away," Labonte said. "My nerve back there in the back of my butt and my leg had been bothering me anyway, so I just have to work on that. But once I got out of the car, I was fine. But sitting in there I was cramped up as all get-out."

And now, Labonte’s focus will shift to Darlington Raceway, site of next Sunday’s Southern 500.

"It’s not the biggest momentum booster to go anywhere," Labonte said. "But at the same time, you look at where our finishes have been here in the past and to finish 15th here was probably a good run for us. We can take it whichever way, but we’re excited about every race. We just can’t let this get us down. We could have been struck by more bullets tonight than the one we got hit by."

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