Labonte Goes Back To Front

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FONTANA, Calif. – There were more than a few happy NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams and drivers on Friday afternoon at California Speedway.

Unlike last weekend in qualifying at Talladega, where the drivers openly complained about how little their driving skills mattered because of the restrictor plates, that was far from the case on Friday at the two-mile California track.

The happiest of the drivers Friday was defending series champion Bobby Labonte. Labonte won the pole for Sunday’s NAPA Auto Parts 500 with his lap at 182.636 mph. His speed edged second-place qualifier Todd Bodine and his lap at 182.566 mph.

“I love this place, and it’s a lot of fun coming here,” Labonte said. “The average speed we ran today was not that much different than we ran last weekend. When we race here we have to let off the accelerator going into the corners. It’s also a wide enough track that you can get yourself in trouble pretty quickly, but at least here you have control over what you’re doing.

"I’m looking forward to Sunday’s race and hoping we can find the right setup for the car.”

As far as the racing action is concerned, Labonte expects to have a lot bigger role this weekend than he had at Talladega.

“I was on the lucky side at Talladega by finishing fifth, because I very easily could have finished 27th,” Labonte said. “Talladega is all about playing chess, and I’ve never played chess before. Now I’ve played a little bit of checkers, but not chess, so it just turned out that way. Here at California, the only was you can get towards the back of the field is to have a bad pit stop or something like that. The biggest thing I like about racing here is we control our own destiny. You can’t compare racing here to the racing at Talladega because it’s so different.”

Rounding out the Top 5 were Jeremy Mayfield, Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett.

“This is a brand-new race car and the guys prepared it really well,” Labonte said. “With a new car, sometimes you hit it just right and sometimes you’re way off. The guys did really well with this car. We hadn’t won a pole yet this year, so this is a really good run for us whether we won the pole or not.

“The decisions Jimmy Makar and I made after practice worked out. Last year we qualified 36th here, so this is a great improvement.”

Rounding out the Top 10 are Ricky Rudd, Steve Park, Johnny Benson, Jimmy Spencer and Mark Martin.

According to Mayfield, the defending NAPA 500 winner, the California track is one that puts a premium on handling well, as opposed to Talladega where about the only talent it took to do well was staying behind someone in the draft.

“This is a speed track because you go over 180 mph here,” said Mayfield. “To get that speed you need to be handling well, so we’re going to have a pretty good race. At California, you have to run hard and think your way around the track.”

Labonte is trying to get a rough season off the ground and running as he heads into Sunday’s race 14th in the points standings. Labonte knows his way around the Fontana track with three straight top-10 finishes, including last year’s runner-up finish to Mayfield.

“I won’t say we’ve turned the corner, but I see signs we’re starting to find our rhythm,” Labonte said. “We’ve had our share of misfortune so far this season, but the season is still far from over and we still have a chance to redeem ourselves. We actually had a pretty good run here last year even though I would have liked to have gotten around Jeremy for the win.

“I really like this track. The groove has gotten wider the past couple of years so you can try those different lines. It’s kind of like Michigan, and that’s my favorite track.”

It was the first pole of the season for both Labonte and Pontiac.

There were two big stories heading into Friday’s qualifying with female driver Shawna Robinson, and Jeff Green taking a rare venture into the Winston Cup garage from the Busch Series side of the fence.

Robinson was attempting to become the first woman in more than 10 years to compete in a Winston Cup race, while Green is racing a limited Cup schedule this season for Richard Childress Racing.

Robinson’s day was rocky from the start, posting the slowest time of all 46 cars in practice, and because it didn’t get any better by breaking a rear end on her timed lap, so she failed to qualify for Sunday’s race.

“We broke a rear end coming off of Turn 2,” Robinson said. “I got into Turn 1 just like I wanted to. In practice we struggled just because I wasn't comfortable and couldn't get what I wanted right, but I know how to get around this track from testing. When I tested here, I ran the same as Jeff Burton. We ran real good times and I'd be like fifth or sixth fastest. I'm thinking, 'I can do this.' I drove into one just like I wanted to and got off into two and as soon as I got off of two it felt like it went into neutral. But it didn't go into neutral - the rear end broke.”

Green had a much better outing as he qualified 28th to earn his way into the field.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Robert Pressley were the only two drivers to make contact with the wall in the practice session held just before qualifying, with both of them having to go to a backup.

However, the spinning would not be limited to just practice as Stacy Compton, the pole winner last weekend at Talladega, would spin his car coming to take the green flag on his qualifying lap. Compton won’t have quite the same view at the start this weekend, as he needed to take a provisional to make the race.

"I don't know what's wrong," Compton said. "We've been off since we got here and just can't seem to figure out what it is. We're not where we need to be right now, but we'll get it straightened out before the race. We spun out on the get-up lap. We got it stopped and didn't make it across the start-finish line so we could get another run at it. It didn't make any difference as bad as we ran."

Failing to make Sunday's race were Robinson, Kevin Lepage and Buckshot Jones.

Healthy Run: While he was in high spirits after qualifying, Labonte was not in the best of moods in the morning as he spent most of that time trying to fend off rumors started by a radio station that he’d been killed in a plane crash. Labonte wasn’t happy, but he said his wife, Donna, was a lot angrier over the rumor than he was.

“She’s at home in North Carolina, and she's not in a good mood,” Labonte
said. “I’d talked with her about 10 minutes before (the report surfaced), so she knew everything was OK. But when her hairdresser and her friends started calling, that’s when she got mad.”

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