Earnhardts Hopes Slip Sliding Away

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Even on a rare bad Sunday for NASCAR Winston Cup Series points leader Bobby Labonte, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt couldn’t gain the ground he needed to in the Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway.

When Labonte was caught a lap down after making a late pit stop in the 400-miler at Rockingham, it looked as if Earnhardt was in good shape to shake up the championship battle in a big way. But Earnhardt failed to capitalize as his car’s handling went away, finished 17th to Labonte’s 20th, and gained a mere nine points.

So, with three races left on this year’s schedule - and all at tracks Labonte ran well at last season - Earnhardt may have lost his last chance to get that record eighth championship in 2000. He now faces a 201-point deficit.

"We gained a few on him, but nothing like we needed to," Earnhardt said.

In order to clinch his first Winston Cup title, all Labonte needs to do at Phoenix, Homestead and Atlanta is finish 14th or better.

That means Earnhardt will likely be left wondering, ‘What if?’ when he looks back at Rockingham. What if he finished in the Top 10 and Labonte was 25th.

"I don’t know if I had a bad set of tires or a mismatched set of tires there at the end,” said Earnhardt, who was running in or near the Top 10 until his march backwards in the final 75 miles. "The car just went all to heck. It was pushing so bad I couldn’t turn it. We were running pretty good there at first, but the track got tighter and our car got tighter. It just didn’t do nothing for us. There at the end, I don’t know what was wrong with it. I just couldn’t go anywhere."

The Intimidator was also pretty upset with what seems to be a weekly problem with the Goodyear tires.

"They change tires, you adjust. They change tires, you adjust," Earnhardt said. "You change, you adjust. They don’t want anybody to be consistent. They want to keep changing tires so we don’t know what is going to happen the next race."

Barring misfortune of mass proportions on the part of Labonte, this year’s championship race may have already been decided. But Earnhardt can’t afford another slip either with Jeff Burton only 50 points behind him in third and coming off a fourth-place Rockingham finish.

Dale Jarrett, the winner Sunday at Rockingham, said the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team - with Labonte and teammate Tony Stewart - have shown they are championship capable. Jarrett used to drive for the No. 18 team with crew chief Jimmy Makar before Gibbs took the chance on Labonte, then an unproven driver in the series.

"I'm truly excited for Jimmy and for Bobby," Jarrett said. "They're very good friends, Jimmy is my brother-in-law, and I have a little bit inside of me that says, 'I helped start that race team.’ When Joe Gibbs first started, I was the first person that Joe Gibbs racing actually hired, and then I told him I wanted Jimmy to the be crew chief. So he put everything together and I was there for the first
three years.

"Bobby Labonte is a really good friend and a tremendous competitor. He works hard at this, and so does Jimmy. People like Jimmy give up a lot to be as good as they are in this business. I know a lot of times they get some recognition, but they don't get nearly enough for what they do and for the hours that they put in to be the best."

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