Can Labonte Finally Coast?

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DOVER, Del. -- Following his fifth-place finish on Sunday afternoon in the wild and crazy MBNA 400 from the Dover Downs International Speedway, Bobby Labonte is well on his way to the first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship of his career.

While the two drivers who entered Sunday’s race in the second and third positions in the title fight - Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett - both crashed and lost valuable ground, Labonte moved ahead to see his points lead grow to the largest of the season at 249.

Now sitting second in the championship race is seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, but even his veteran skills may not be enough to catch Labonte and the No. 18 Pontiac over the remaining seven races.

But Labonte isn’t conceding a thing yet.

"Every race is important from now on out," Labonte said following his 19th top-five finish of the season for he and team owner Joe Gibbs. "One slip and we could really lose a lot. But we’ll just race hard like we did today. We didn’t hit the setup right, but we worked hard enough to where we overcame some of it there towards the end of the race.

"Plus, a day like today, when there are guys that did have some tough luck that were in the points chase, we didn’t want to see that happen for them, but at the same time we took care of ourselves after that happened."

And it was a race that was won by his teammate Tony Stewart in convincing fashion on a day when problems seemed to reach out and grab anybody that was running well.

Burton was running second when he blew a right-front tire and slammed into the wall. Afterwards, Burton agreed that making up the 268-point deficit he now faces might be next to impossible.

"Like I said before the year started, we have to race every race," Burton said. "These things happen, what are you going to do about it? Go back to the next race and do all you can do. We try as hard as we know how to try. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t."

But the 2000 Winston Cup season has been one where Labonte can do no wrong, even though it’s like pulling teeth to get him to say so.

"Trust me, we ain’t thinking about it," Labonte said. "We’re going to go race every race like it’s the last one. We just work real hard at it and don’t worry about it. Jeff Burton has kind of summed up what I’ve said a lot of times - at the end of the day and at the end of the year, some lady is going to add up the points and what it is is what it is. Right now, we’ve just got to run good and try to win races. If we can do that, we’ll be fine.

"We’ve got to go all the way until the championship is mathematically true, and I don’t even want to think about it until it’s over. That’s the way we’ve got to do it. If we did different, we would lose. Right now, if we lose it that will be because something happens to us. We’ve got to run like we did today - be a competitor. We weren’t the fastest car, but we had a top-five car for some parts of the day, and that’s what we have to do."

So with the problems that happened to Burton and Jarrett, does Labonte feel like he dodged a bullet?

"Bullets can come ricocheting from any angle," he answered. "I’m looking forward to Martinsville and we want to go up there and win the race. We can’t go there and say, 'Well, let’s just try to survive and finish 15th.' We’ve got to go up there and really, really work hard, stay up front and lead if we can. We’ve just got to do that. Right now, we can’t worry about points. All we’ve got to worry about is racing."

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