Terry Labonte survived a war of attrition to win at last in his
Texas Motor Speedway is no longer a driver's nightmare, but it's
still a tough track. Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner and Mark Martin
all slammed hard into the wall in separate crashes caused by
blown right front tires in Sunday's Primestar 500, which was won
under caution by a Texan, Terry Labonte. Martin was unhurt, but
Skinner fractured the same right shoulder that he broke at this
track a year ago. Gordon suffered bruised ribs and said of his
crash, which came on Lap 69 of the 334-lap race, "That's the
hardest I've ever hit a wall, that's for sure."
Despite those accidents, the third Winston Cup race at the
star-crossed, $260 million speedway was much safer than the
wreckfests of 1997 and '98. Drivers had complained vehemently
after those races about the abrupt transition from banked turns
to flat straightaways and about the narrow exit to Turn 4.
Moreover, a water table created leaks in the asphalt last year,
causing cars to lose traction. As part of a $3.5 million
renovation, the track was repaved before this year's race, the
exit to Turn 4 was widened and the transitions were made more
gradual. "People were able to race well today," said Labonte. "I
can't compare it to the first two years here."
Labonte, a native of Corpus Christi, had never won a major race
in his home state. He passed Dale Jarrett to take the lead with
12 laps to go. When the caution flag came out with two laps
remaining, Labonte was able to cruise to the finish as 220,000
spectators, including Texas governor George W. Bush, cheered. It
was the 21st career Winston Cup victory for the 42-year-old
Labonte, but he said, "To me, it was the biggest race I've ever
NASCAR ROOKIE LOVES THIS GAME
Tony Stewart has been driving full time on the Winston Cup
circuit less than two months, but he's already so content that he
says, "This is where I want to be for 20 or 30 years. This is
where I want to retire."
In his previous life Stewart was the moody poster boy of the
fledgling IRL, a circuit that frustrated him "not because of the
people," he says, "but because having motor failures and dropping
out of races that we had a shot of winning was difficult."
Stewart, 27, is one of only 13 drivers to finish all six Winston
Cup events this year, and at Texas on Sunday he finished sixth
for the second consecutive race. Elliott Sadler, second in the
rookie point standings, hasn't come in better than 10th, and the
third-best newcomer, Roy (Buckshot) Jones, hasn't done better
Though Stewart won the IRL championship in 1997 and an
unprecedented triple crown of U.S. Auto Club titles in sprint,
midgets and Silver Crown cars two years earlier, he realizes how
much more difficult it is to win a Winston Cup points
championship. For starters, the 3,400-pound stock cars are twice
as heavy and don't handle as precisely as the open-wheel cars on
the IRL circuit. Also, he has been hindered by a lack of
experience in giving his crew input on chassis adjustments that
may be needed during a race. "Everything I've done in the past,
I'm throwing out the window," Stewart says. "Every time I go out
and practice with these guys, I'm reminded that I'm a rookie."
OLD-TIMER EARNS HIS KEEP
Last Saturday, for the first time this season, Darrell Waltrip
made the field for a race with a qualifying lap rather than
relying on NASCAR's version of Social Security--the so-called
provisional berth reserved for former Winston Cup champions. His
186.554-mph lap earned him the 32nd spot in Sunday's Primestar
500, in which he finished 25th out of 43 drivers, and brought on
the most bizarre NASCAR celebration in recent memory.
After learning that he had qualified, Waltrip, 52, took a
victory jog through the garage area at Texas Motor Speedway,
with camera crews and reporters in hot pursuit. Then he held a
press conference and declared, "I haven't felt this good since I
won the Daytona 500" in 1989.
A three-time points champion and NASCAR's winningest active
driver (84 victories), Waltrip had come to Texas in dire
straits. Unlike last season, when provisionals were unlimited
and Waltrip used 22 of them, this year former champs are allowed
no more than eight free rides, and Waltrip had used up four with
29 races remaining. Also, after finishing a miserable 41st in
the TranSouth 400 at Darlington on March 21, he had been
criticized by his car owner, Travis Carter, for having scurried
about the garage seeking advice from others on how to set up the
car, instead of trusting his team's plan.
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN In a typically Texas-sized pronouncement, Labonte called the Primestar 500 victory the "biggest" of his career.
Drivers who have completed all 1,002 laps run in the three
Winston Cup races held at Texas Motor Speedway since it opened
in April 1997. They're Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Bobby
Labonte, who finished 1-2-3, respectively, at Texas on Sunday.