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NASCAR Winston Cup Series NAPA 500: Bobby Labonte Wins, Gordon Becomes Champion

16 November 1997

HAMPTON, GA -- In a replay of last year's NAPA 500 - Bobby Labonte has won the
season finale on the newly re-shaped Atlanta Motor Speedway. The win, the
second for Pontiac in the 1997 season, brought Bobby Labonte and the
Interstate Batteries team the winner's purse of $158,600.

The drivers that followed Labonte across the line were Dale Jarrett, Mark
Martin, Jeff Green and Derrike Cope. Both Green's and Cope's finishes are
their best finishes of the 1997 season.

The series championship was also determined in Jeff Gordon's favor. Gordon,
who had to fight through the crowd from his 37th starting spot, finished with
a narrow 14 point advantage over second place Dale Jarrett and 29 points over
Mark Martin. The points battle was the 4th closest finish in NASCAR's modern

Geoff Bodine took the field to green after he set a track record 197+ mph
qualifying run earlier in the weekend.  The advantage that Bodine had was
nowhere to be found on race day though as he was only able to hold onto the
lead for the first four laps of racing. Once off the point Bodine would start
his slide back in the field. When the checkers fell Bodine was credited with a
33rd place finish.

It was Ward Burton in the MBNA Pontiac that took the lead from Bodine. In a
classic show of force, Dale Earnhardt blew by Burton to take the lead. For a
short time it looked like Earnardt would be the class of the field. Lap 27
brought out a planned yellow flag for the teams to check for tire wear from
the unknown track surface.

A combination of pit strategies were played out on pit road - Mark Martin took
the plunge and the Valvoline Ford rolled off pit road with only two tires but
in the lead. The move wasn't a bad one but the stronger cars of Dale Earnhardt
and Joe Nemechek shot past Martin to lead the field. 

The field took the caution flag on lap 40 after Roy Jones and Brett Bodine got
together in turn two. The leaders decided that track position was more
important than tires at that time and they decided to stay on the track.

After the clean-up it was Dale Earnhardt that took the field to green.
Earnhardt continued to look like he would terrorize the field. That was  until
the #42 BellSouth car of Joe Nemechek got hooked up and got around Earnhardt.
Nemechek was able to hold onto the point until lap 89 when a cycle of green
flag pit stops buried Nemechek back in the pack.

It was during this time that the call came from the #88 that there was a power
problem with the #88 car - A problem was giving Jarrett fits as he was having
a tough time getting out of the turns. A nervous Robert Yates team was
contemplating a timing adjustment to try to pick up a little of the power that
was missing. The thought was never acted on as it was determined that a wrong
choice of gears was the problem with the Quality Care Ford.

The problem for the Yates team didn't stop there. It was the #28 team this
time. Ernie Irvan, in his last ride in the #28 was caught speeding on pit
road. Irvan, who had worked his way up from a 23rd starting spot, was forced
to bring  the Texaco Havoline Ford in for a stop and go penalty. When Irvan
was exiting from the pits for the penalty he was nailed again for speeding and
a return stop on pit road was ordered. The move put Irvan back to 32nd. Irvan,
though, kept his head and battled back for a 12th place finish on the day.

The race stayed green - that is until Dale Earnhardt drilled the turn 2 wall
after he developed a tire induced handling problem. "We got up out of the
groove. A car ran down under me down the front starightaway. I thought he was
under me. They were hollering 'low - low'. I went up and got a little loose. I
let up so I wouldn't spin out and I got up in the loose stuff and hit the
wall. We had worn out tires."

Bobby Labonte, showing some of that Labonte class, let Dale Jarrett back on
the lead as he came around for the yellow for Earnhardt's incident.

Bobby Labonte was now hooked up and looked to be untouchable. The Interstate
Batteries Pontiac was on a mission now - to visit victory lane in 1997. The
only time Bobby Labonte was behind anyone would be right after a pit stop. It
was Mark Martin, in the Valvoline Ford, that held the spot that Labonte
desperately wanted after a two tire stop put him far ahead of the field.

Slowly, Labonte nibbled into Martin's lead and on lap 310 Labonte caught
Martin. Labonte had to pick his spot to pass as there was slower lapped
traffic all around the front runners. Then as Labonte stalked Martin - looking
for a way by - a puff of smoke came from Martin's tail pipes. Labonte took the
situation in hand and charged by Martin on lap 315. That was the last of the
competition for Labonte as he drove the last ten laps unchallenged, beating
Dale Jarrett to the line by a healthy 3.801-second margin.

"Our goal was to have a victory before the year was over," a chipper Bobby
Labonte said. "We waited until the end, which is not what we wanted to do. But
that's how it turned out. Fortunately we had a race car and it performed well
all day. I was hoping the championship  would be settled behind me. Last year
with (Bobby's  brother) Terry out there (battling for the championship) it was
a little different. I looked at the scoreboard a few times and saw they were
really close, but I didn't know how close it was going to be."

Second place finisher Dale Jarrett said, "We had a little carburetor problem
or something. If it had run like it normally runs we would have been awesome.
But we had to try to make up ground in other spots. Getting in traffic really
hurt me because of the problem we had. You win some and you lose some. But we
had a great season. The guys did a great job and we're looking forward to next

Mark Martin was also happy with the season that he and the Valvoline crew had.
"We must have broke a valve or something," stated Martin. "We went for the win
as hard as we could go. We had a good car and a good team. I think we were
looking pretty good until we lost that cylinder. I want to thank God for the
opportunity and all my sponsors and everybody at Roush Racing for being a

It wasn't until the checkers fell that the 1997 Winston Cup champion was
named. And it was Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors that got the job done -
this despite the terrible hole they had dug for themselves the day before. 
First Gordon wrecked his primary car in a fluke pit road incident. Then an
overfilled oil tank  caused a poor qualifying result. Nevertheless the team
took to the track and did what they had to do and won the Winston Cup
championship by the fourth narrowest margin in series history. Fourteen points
is all that separated Gordon from second place Dale Jarrett when the checkers
fell. "One thing I've been able to do is turn away from things and forget
about them and move on and think about what I need to do next. Unfortunately,
that situation happened (the accident on pit road) and I was pretty upset at
myself when it happened. It was one of those things where I went back to the
motorhome after the day and told Brooke that I knew it wasn't a difficult
thing to do. It was slick and the tires were new, but it was totally
unnecessary. I was upset with myself. Last night when I said I wasn't
sleeping, it wasn't because I was going through that again. It was more like -
OK what do we have to do? How do we race? We basically had to make no mistakes
and race pretty hard today to accomplish this championship. When I woke up
this morning after a couple of hours of sleep, I felt really good. Max Helton
of MRO got Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and myself and held hands and prayer last
night. To me that was cool. That was classy. That really said a lot for this
sport and the sportsmanship of the people running for this championship. I can
honestly say I would have been happy for those guys had either one or them won
the championship. They worked real hard, but I would have been disappointed.
>From last night and all through today, praying and having a lot of faith in
the Lord had a lot to do with what we were able to do out there today. We
totally focused on the goal and that was keep the car going straight all day

The race, that was slowed by the caution four times for 25 laps, took 3 hours
7 minutes and 48 seconds to complete. The average speed was 159.904 miles per
hour on the new quad-oval. 

This marks the last race of the 1997 Winston Cup series. The racing will
resume in February with the invitational Big Bud Shoot-out followed by the
season opening Daytona 500 the following week.

Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel