DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Past Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte gave notice yesterday that he could be a contender this season and he also made it clear he isn't going to be quiet when he thinks he has a gripe.
Before the start of the Daytona 500, it became known that Labonte had pulled out of the International Race of Champions, saying the first race of the series was unfairly run.
Then he went out in his Chevrolet and led 44 of the first 75 laps. It would be the most laps led by anyone all day and it appeared Labonte's car was the class of the field until a valve spring problem forced him from the lead. He finished 24th.
IROC is a four-race, invitation-only series which pits 12 top drivers from various racing series in identically prepared Pontiac Firebirds. Labonte said Friday's race was imbalanced in favor of five drivers, including race-winner Dale Earnhardt, who pitted for tires during a caution period with 10 laps to go.
Labonte said cars were supposed to be allowed to pit only for tires if they had tire problems. "Never did they say you could pit if your car wasn't handling good," he said.
IROC president Jay Signore said the tire-changing rule came up in the pre-race drivers' meeting and Signore said he indicated at
that time that tire changes would be allowed for any reason.
"But," Signore said, "there's no way we want to have a situation like this. . . . We'll work on it and get back to Terry."
Labonte had led the IROC race for 27 laps, but finished seventh.
"They made us look like a bunch of idiots out there on old tires, with these guys getting new ones," said Labonte. "It's supposed to be a 40-lap race, equal cars. How is that equal when you put new tires on five guys' cars? There's nothing fair in the world about that."
Back-to-back winner Sterling Marlin will have to be content for the time being to remain tied with Richard Petty (1973-1974) and Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) as the only consecutive winners in Daytona 500 history.
Marlin's chance for a three-peat ended after 81 laps, and he finished 40th.
"We were right where we wanted to be," said Marlin, who had just taken the lead. "And then the engine broke. We busted a piston or something. . . . If we could have stayed out there, I think we had a good shot to win the race.
"But the deal is if you win, you win. If you don't, you just go to the house. We'll be back next year. We didn't get three straight, but three out of four wouldn't be bad."
Irvan's early exit
Ernie Irvan, driving his first Daytona 500 in two years, needed extensive repairs after bumping into Earnhardt's car on Lap 28. He finished 35th.
"I came up on Earnhardt . . . and it looked like he was pushing real bad," said Irvan. "Then it looked like, 'OK, now he's going again,' and about right at the start-finish line, it was like he shut the switch off.
"I hit him and then somebody hit me from behind. Oh, well, You've got to worry about things you can change. It's not like there's anything you can do, you know?"
It was a disappointing end, but Irvan qualified second in the 500 and won his 125-mile qualifying race, his first win since a near-fatal accident Aug. 29, 1994, at Michigan International Speedway.
Around the track
Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon got smashed into the front-straight wall on the eighth lap and finished 42nd. . . . Rusty Wallace, who started last, had his best 500 finish in seven years, coming home 16th. . . . Dave Marcis completed all 200 laps for the first time in 28 years and finished 15th.