Victory finds Labonte ready, willing at Pocono


LONG POND, Pa. -- It looked like Jeff Gordon would run away with the UAW-GM Teamwork 500 Winston Cup race yesterday on this speedway's long 2.5 mile tri-oval.

But auto racing can be funny that way. It's why fans stay in their seats to the end.

It's the unexpected, unexplainable that keeps the game exciting.

Race fans saw it displayed at the Indianapolis 500, when Scott Goodyear, obviously on his way to victory, beat himself by passing the pace car on a restart with 10 laps to go and handed victory to Jacque Villeneuve.

Yesterday, the nearly 100,000 fans at Pocono International Raceway saw the unexpected.

Gordon, "The Kid" to his rivals, had dominated for more than half the race and was leading the field down the front straight for what would be the final restart of the afternoon with seven laps to go. He stepped on the gas, missed the shift into third gear, and handed victory to Terry Labonte, his quiet, relentless pursuer.

The missed gear caused Gordon's Chevrolet to blow its engine and spew smoke and debris from the car's tailpipe. Labonte, who was right behind him when the green flag waved, darted low on the track into the first turn and took the lead for the first time.

"From what was coming out of his tailpipe, I knew he wasn't coming back anymore today," Labonte said.

Gordon, who had led 123 laps, wound up 16th, as Labonte set a track record by coming from his 27th starting place to win. The record he broke was his own, set in June 1989, when he came from 23rd to win.

"Basically, I was going to settle for second," said Labonte, who won for the second time this season. "But then Jeff had that problem, I thought, 'We might win this thing yet.' It was too bad for Jeff. He had the best car and the entire field covered, but that's how racing is."

Labonte's Chevrolet averaged 137.719 mph to beat Ted Musgrave's Ford to the finish line by 1.64 seconds. Pole-sitter Ken Schrader was third.

"I made a mistake," said Gordon, 23. "We had such a great car and I lost it for us. I guess everybody is going to make mistakes. As long as I can learn from this one. . . . I came close to missing it [the shift] one other time. I wasn't concentrating on the shift. I was more worried about getting a good jump and getting away from those guys behind me.

"It cost me, but we're going to go on. We know we can run this strong again," said Gordon, who started fifth in a field of 42.

"It was really nice to be up there leading and leading as many laps as we did. . . . but we're young. We know we're going to make mistakes and we know it's going to take a while before we can win that championship."

Labonte, 38, can remember what it was like to be young. He also knows that consistency can pay great dividends. When he was 26, he turned two Winston Cup victories, six second-place finishes and six third-place finishes into a Winston Cup championship.

He spread six more victories over the next five years, but then didn't win again for four years.

It wasn't until he joined car owner Rick Hendrick's team last year that he again found a way to win. "Sometimes you're only as good as your equipment," he said of the bad times.

Three victories with this team in 1994 rejuvenated him and gave him hope for this year. Yesterday, he talked about the benefits of being on Hendrick's team, which also includes Gordon and Schrader. He talked freely about how those other two teams shared information with his team Saturday and caused his crew chief to change the shocks, sway bar and springs.

It was the information he had received from Gordon, who has three Winston Cup victories this season, and Schrader that helped turn his car from a 27th-place qualifier into a contender.

And so, when the race was done and Labonte was asked how he felt about winning, he tried to downplay his victory over his teammate.

"I've won races like this before and I've lost races the way Jeff did today," said Labonte.

"If his engine hadn't gone, I don't think there was any way I could have beaten him. I couldn't beat him for 193 laps, so I don't think there was much hope for the last seven."

On the team radio, however, the former champion expressed his joy to his crew as he crossed the finish line.

"Wow, how about that, guys!" he said. "Way to go. . . . It just shows, it's sure not over till it's over."

Unexpected, unexplainable -- that's just the way racing is.

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