Martinsville Cures Labontes Ills
April 15, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Both Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup Series champion, and Terry Labonte, a former-time Winston Cup title holder, were floundering in mediocrity coming into Sunday’s Virginia 500. Neither had much to brag about during the 2002 season, leaving many scratching their heads.
Martinsville turned out to be just the medicine both drivers needed. Riding on the wave of brilliant pit strategy, Bobby and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team earned their first victory of the season, taking the checkered flag just ahead of Matt Kenseth in a race that ended under caution.
Terry, on the other hand, finished just sixth, but it was a strong sixth. He led a total of 11 laps, the first laps he’s led in nearly 18 months, and ran up front for a good portion of the day.
The Labontes good fortune on Sunday vaulted Bobby up to the 12th spot in the points standings and Terry into the 15th position. Both of their teams appear to have things headed in the right direction.
“Boy, I sure hope so,” said Bobby, who had two other top-five finishes coming into Sunday’s race, but also had three finishes of 30th or worse in the first seven races. “You can get really down in this deal and it really affects you a lot. I can’t say that it hasn’t because it has.
“We’ve just plain sucked a lot over the last year and a half or so, so this is great to win on a track that we’re not usually accustomed to running well at or evening having a really legitimate shot at winning. It’s become one of our better tracks, all of a sudden – the short tracks have this year.”
Bobby finished fifth three weeks ago at Bristol. He’s now has nine career top-10 finishes at Martinsville Speedway, including four in a row and five out of his last six. His best-ever finish at Martinsville prior to Sunday was fourth, last fall.
He also won a Busch race at Martinsville back in the early 1990s.
“I never said I didn’t like short-track racing,” Labonte said. “It just doesn’t work for me as good as maybe some other guys. I still like it, though. We had a great finish at Bristol earlier this year.
“We always run well there, but we’re just not contenders for winning a lot of times. We’re usually fifth to 10th, though. But, nobody looks at that as hard, either. I don’t mind it. I enjoy it and I’ll enjoy it a lot more.”
Seeing Bobby Labonte win a race and run up front isn’t much of a surprise to people any more. But seeing Terry lead an event and run up in the front of the pack isn’t so much of a common occurrence these days.
The last time Terry had led a race was the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 15, 2000. That’s a total of 47 previous races that he didn’t even lead one lap, not even during a caution period.
He qualified fourth on Friday, and he and his team had a world of confidence coming into the Virginia 500.
On Sunday, the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevy took the point for the first time on Lap 274. He lost it to Ward Burton for three circuits, then regained it for 10 more until Ricky Craven got by him on Lap 288.
“We came here and unloaded good, and these guys (his crew) are doing a great job,” Terry said. “It’s always hard to pass at Martinsville, and it took me a while to get going. At the end, my car was just a little bit loose and I couldn’t come in and work on it because of track position, so we just had to try and ride it out. We just kind of hung in there in sixth.
“It felt good, and we even led a lap,” Labonte joked. “The car ran good for us all day. We qualified good. I wish we would have won. I wish we would have gotten a Top 5. But we got another top-10. Like I said before, I really feel like we’re going in the right direction with this team. (Sunday) was just another step that way.”
It was Terry’s second straight top-10 after running 10th at Texas. He had only three top-10s in all of 2001, and he hadn’t put together consecutive top-10 finishes since Bristol and Texas over two years ago.
Terry finished 23rd in the points last season and many around the NASCAR circles have questioned whether not he could do the job anymore.
“I never said I could drive (in the first place),” he joked.
He and Bobby hope to continue the momentum at Talladega this weekend in the Aaron’s 499. Terry is a two-time winner at Talladega (the fall of 1989 and the fall of 1997), while Bobby won there in the spring of 1998.
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