ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Ricky Rudd won yesterday's AC-Delco 400 race, but Terry Labonte came out ahead in the Winston Cup championship chase.
In typical low-key Labonte fashion, he sneaked away from North Carolina Motor Speedway with a third-place finish and took the points lead from defending champion Jeff Gordon with just two races left in the season.
"It wasn't good enough to win the race, but it was a good, solid run for us," said Labonte, who went from a one-point deficit to a 32-point advantage over Gordon headed into the final stops at Phoenix and Atlanta. "We'll take it and go on to the next two races."
It was a day symbolic of the season for "The Iceman," who earned the nickname from his even-tempered manner -- nothing flashy, just steady racing. He was the only driver among the championship contenders not to lead a single lap, but he saved his best for last.
After starting 19th because of a poor qualifying effort, Labonte worked his way through the field and never dropped out of the top 10. He slipped past Jeff Burton in the final laps to improve his standing in the race and the points.
"I didn't know if I was going to get him or not," said Labonte, who moved up five spots in the final 100 laps to post his season-high 18th top-five finish. "His car was going away a little bit, so I was able to run him down."
That's the same approach that Labonte, who won the points title in 1984, has used to catch his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Since Gordon grabbed the top spot in the standings from him last month at Dover, Del., Labonte has finished no lower than fifth in the last four races.
Gordon, on the other hand, ran into early problems for the second straight race after finishing 31st two weeks ago at Charlotte. He was lapped midway through yesterday's race and never made it up, but salvaged a 12th-place finish.
"For being in that position, I thought we did a pretty good job," said Gordon, who dropped as far back as 21st before turning it around. "I don't know what happened that one time, but we did a good job of sticking together as frustrating as it was."
Now the defending champ finds himself in an unfamiliar position. Not only is he in his first close race for the title, but he also finds himself battling from behind.
"That's a blink of the eye," said Gordon, who almost blew a 309-point lead over Dale Earnhardt in the final three races last year before winning the title by 34. "I like the cushion we had going in a little better, but 32 points is nothing."
Yesterday's second-place finisher, Dale Jarrett, hopes he's right. Coming into the race 92 points off the pace, Jarrett managed to trim the deficit to 76 behind Labonte. It could have been even closer if not for Labonte's late scramble.
"Late in the race, Terry was back in eighth or ninth and it appeared we might gain even more points on him," Jarrett said. "But my Ford buddies couldn't keep him back there, I guess. Terry did a good job like he's always done and we just have to keep fighting."
Rudd's victory was his first of the season and enabled him to extend his 14-year Winston Cup winning streak, second only to Earnhardt.
His gamble not to join the rest of the pack in the pits late in the race paid handsomely. The move gave Rudd the lead and enabled him to run away from the field for the final 74 laps.
"Our car just seemed to get stronger and stronger, so it wasn't that much of a gamble," he said. "Had we had a car that was fast and then went away, it would have been a big gamble, but our car liked to run on old tires and it played into our hands today."
(Results, Page 8C)
Pub Date: 10/21/96