Strategy Pays Off For Labonte

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - You can’t make fun of Bobby Labonte on short tracks any more. He’s finally a NASCAR Winston Cup winner on one.

Taking the lead when Tony Stewart - his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate - decided to pit for four tires under a caution with 55 laps to go Sunday, Labonte won the Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The victory was the 19th of Labonte’s career, but it was his first on a short track and his first of 2002. Labonte’s previous best finish at the .526-mile Martinsville oval was fourth, with a quartet of eighth-place finishes his best before that.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Labonte joked when asked about his lack of success here. “I won a grandfather clock (trophy) here before, just in a Busch car.

“We’ve got our flat-track program working pretty good. This year, not that we worked any harder at it, we just happened to hit upon better combinations. Having Tony and (crew chief) Greg Zipadelli on the other side – they usually run pretty good on short tracks, and we’ve been feeding off that, too.

“It’s not like I don’t like (short tracks). It’s just that I don’t run as good as some other ones. At Bristol this year we finished fifth; that was my best finish up there.”

And, now, he’s won at Martinsville for the first time in 19 races.

“Why haven’t we ever won here before?” Labonte said. “We just didn’t I guess. I don’t know. I’m not a wizard. I can pretty much tell you it was because we weren’t fast enough. It’s one of those deals. It was a good track, just not the best track.

“Did I mention that Martinsville’s my favorite track?”

Matt Kenseth fought a winning battle with Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart for second place, with Stewart third and Jarrett fourth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up fifth, with Terry Labonte sixth, Ricky Rudd seventh, Mark Martin eighth, Jeff Burton ninth and Kurt Busch 10th.

The race settled down to a battle of pit strategy. Stewart had gotten the lead from Bobby Hamilton with 67 laps to go, but a caution for Stacy Compton and Johnny Benson changed all that.

Labonte and 11 other drivers didn’t pit when Stewart did, putting Stewart in 13th place. Labonte, who had changed only right-side tires on his two previous stops, stayed out to take the lead.

“That was definitely the key call,” Labonte said of staying out. “Jimmy Makar (crew chief) and I got two tires, then we got two tires again, and then we got no tires. I saw the 20 car going in, and I thought, ‘He might fake us out here.’ But he didn’t. He went in.

“There are usually a lot of cautions here the last some-odd laps to go. I said, ‘Well, I’m better off just trying to stay out here.’”

Makar said the team had talked about the strategy before the race, and when the situation presented itself, Makar and Labonte went for it.

“When he even mentioned the words, ‘staying out,’ it was like a breath of fresh air to me,” Makar said. “I was all over that one really quick. Like Bobby said, track position is everything here the last 50 laps.”

The green flag waved with 50 laps to go, with Terry Labonte chasing his younger brother for the lead. Kenseth took second from Terry soon after the restart.

With 25 laps to go, Ricky Craven and Jimmy Spencer spun in Turn 2, setting up a 19-lap dash to the checkered flag. Kenseth made a quick jab at the lead, but Bobby Labonte held him off.

Another caution slowed the race with 15 laps to go, with Jarrett getting around Kenseth for second. The green was displayed on Lap 493, meaning the lead-lap cars didn’t have any lap-down cars to race against.

Kenseth bumped Jarrett out of the way for second with five laps left, but Jarrett battled back on the outside. That let Labonte slip away to the victory, with the race ending under caution for a Hamilton spin.

“You never like to run into people and you never like them to run into you,” Kenseth said. “But that’s short track racing. We had a great car and good finish.”

Jarrett was only slightly ticked off at being bumped from second.

“He needs to go look at the paint to see that I didn’t hit him whenever I passed him, but he knocked the hell out of me,” Jarrett said. “But that’s short-track racing. It was fun racing.”

Stewart was stuck behind those two, perhaps preventing him from battling for the lead with Labonte. Stewart, though, was upset over losing the race on pit strategy.

“We had the best car out here all day, and we gave it away,” Stewart said. “I was right with Greg on the call to come in and take two, and nobody else came, and then we got screwed by everybody else staying out. But we had the best car all day.”

Zipadelli blamed himself.

“I was an idiot for coming in,” Zipadelli said.

Points leader Sterling Marlin had a mediocre day, hanging around the Top 15 but not much higher. He finished 12th and lost more ground to Kenseth, who closed to within 27 points of the lead.

“It’s too early to worry about points too much,” Kenseth said. “Obviously, I’m real happy where we’re at, and we had a great start, but it’s an extremely long season.”

Pole winner Jeff Gordon led 68 laps but suffered tire trouble while trying to avoid a spinning Robby Gordon. Robby had spun in oil from John Andretti’s blown engine, and the leaders all slowed to miss him. While Stewart went high, Gordon darted low, where he and Spencer made contact.

Gordon had a flat left-front tire, and he had to pit before the pits were open. He lost a lap in the process and had to restart at the end of the longest line. Later, Gordon had power-steering troubles, causing a caution when smoke poured out of his car. He lost two more laps trying to fix it but did manage to extend the longest current streak of running at the end of races to 39 by finishing 23rd.

There was a strange sight just past the halfway mark when a beach ball found its way onto the track. But it was out of the groove, and NASCAR didn’t have to display a caution.

There was another strange sight when Terry Labonte passed Ward Burton for the lead on Lap 278. That was the first time Labonte had led a lap since Oct. 15, 2000.

The Winston Cup Series goes from the smallest track to the biggest next week. The 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway hosts the Aaron’s 499 next Sunday.

Gut Check for Compton
Nobody can accuse Stacy Compton of not being a gamer.

Despite having food poisoning throughout the entire weekend, Compton not only finished ninth in the Busch Series race at Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday, he also wound up finishing a respectable 18th in the Virginia 500 Sunday at Martinsville.

Compton contracted the food poisoning Thursday night, and woke up sick on Friday morning. He received medical attention, which included IV fluids, at Nashville on Saturday, and prior to Sunday’s race, he received more IV fluids in the infield care center at Martinsville.

The only solid food Compton ate throughout the weekend was a banana on Sunday morning, and his No. 14 Conseco Pontiac team attempted to keep him hydrated throughout the 500-lap event Sunday afternoon.

During the final 200 laps, Compton’s air hose came off his helmet. “That was the equivalent of just having my head in a sock for 200 laps,” Compton said.

Over the final 100 laps, Compton was nauseas, but managed a top-20 finish anyway. “We had a better car than 18th place, but the driver gave up a couple of positions over the last 100 laps,” Compton said.

Helton Warns Drivers About Traction Control
NASCAR president Mike Helton, holding two devices in his hands, issued a stern warning to drivers and crew chiefs about the illegal use of traction control.

“In an effort to police that, we’ve spent a good deal of time and money buying parts and pieces that you’ve been offered to buy so we can figure out what to look for as technology keeps getting to the point where it makes it more complicated for us to find things,” Helton said. “What we’ve figured out is you can spend as little or as much as you want to on things like this that requires someone to hook them up. There’s not much we can do to the people manufacturing these things to try to get around the rules.

“It’s the crew chiefs and the drivers that we will react to if we ever find these in the car. This is your warning, crew chiefs and drivers, that traction control is not part of this sport. Don’t make us react.”

Switch to Composite Seat Has Been Easy
Ricky Craven said he has been surprised how easy the switch to a composite seat has been this season.

“The transition’s been great,” Craven said. “The numbers don’t lie. We’ve got a couple poles, a couple of Top 5s and we’ve led races. The seat transition was easier than I expected, and it’s peace of mind for me because I believe it’s safer.”

Craven has yet to test the carbon-fiber seat in an actual crash, but he’s ready when he does wreck.

“I don’t know if that’s unfortunate or fortunate,” Craven said. “There will be a point when it’s tested. I hope it’s not any time soon, but that’s the whole point. The peace of mind I have knowing that I’m safer helps me.”

Gordon’s Radical Car Still Has Impact
Jeff Gordon won The Winston in 1997 with a radically new car created by Hendrick Motorsports, one that NASCAR asked his Ray Evernham-led crew not to bring back to a NASCAR track.

Gordon talked about that radical car this week, and he swore it was legal.

“We brought a couple new people into our R&D department, our chassis department,” Gordon said. “They read that rulebook word-by-word, and they did build a race car that was built around the rule book. Now, the rulebook’s a little different.

“It did give us a Winston win.”

What was so different about it?

“A lot of it was fuel-cell location, the way some of the structure of the tubing was built,” Gordon said. “A lot of it was center-of-gravity-type things of where things were placed. That thing was a bear to work on. You couldn’t even change the rear-end gear without practically pulling the fuel cell out of it.”

While NASCAR asked them not to bring the car back, Gordon said the team learned from that car.

“We’ve incorporated a lot of things we learned from that car on the cars we race today,” Gordon said. “We just put them in the way it fits in the rulebook.”

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