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Labonte wins again in Atlanta

| Monday, March 10, 2003

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Speed is Bobby Labonte's passion, and there's no place where he races that is faster than Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On Sunday, Labonte mastered the 1.5-mile quad-oval for the sixth time in 14 races, fighting off a late challenge from Jeff Gordon to win the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.

"I have no idea why we're so good here," Labonte said. "All I know is it's a combination of a lot of things -- team, car, motor, pit stops -- and I really like this place.

"I do love going fast," he added, grinning. "The faster I go, the better I like it. And this place is fast."

Labonte dominated at times during the 325-lap event, leading a race-high 172 laps. He appeared to have things under control after passing Gordon for the lead with 44 laps left.

He stayed out front by beating Gordon out of the pits on the leaders' last stop, during a caution period on lap 303, then held a strong challenge by the four-time Winston Cup champion off on the restart on lap 307.

Jeff Burton brought out another caution flag on lap 308 when his engine blew and he scraped the fourth-turn wall.

That gave Gordon another shot at Labonte on the restart on lap 313, and he took advantage. The four-time Winston Cup champion pushed the nose of his No. 24 Chevrolet on the outside of Labonte's No. 18 Chevy, pulled alongside and finally got out front on the backstretch.

Labonte, the 2000 series champ, stayed with Gordon and tapped his rear bumper in the fourth turn, making both cars wiggle. Gordon slowed just enough for Labonte to shove his way alongside as the two got to the flagstand, then zoom into the lead as he drove into turn one on the 315th lap.

"I just had a fast car and I tried to pass him when I could get to him," Labonte said. "When I got close, I thought, 'Man, I've got to take this opportunity right now. If you wait, you never know what's going to happen."

As he pulled ahead of Gordon, Labonte's new crew chief, Michael "Fatback" McSwain, keyed his radio and hollered, "That is a race driver, folks."

Labonte steadily pulled away from Gordon, driving off to a 20 car-length lead over the next few laps and winning by 1.274 seconds -- half a straightaway.

Gordon "just kept us honest," Labonte said. "That guy was just so fast. The restarts were terrible, but the car was good."

It was the 38-year-old Labonte's 20th career victory and the seventh in the last 14 races for Joe Gibbs Racing. Teammate Tony Stewart, defending series champion, won this race last year.

Gordon, who started 30th in the 43-car field, didn't appear too disappointed by his runner-up finish. He started the season without a top-10 placing in the first three races for the first time in his career.

Labonte "had the best car all day," Gordon said. "He was just so strong. I learned some things from him today.

"We showed we can run up front and finish in the top five. Now we just have to keep doing it."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from 37th place to finish third, giving Chevrolet a sweep of the top three. Ford driver Matt Kenseth, the winner last week in Las Vegas, was fourth, followed by Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Jimmy Spencer, Dave Blaney and Gordon's teammate Joe Nemechek, the last driver on the lead lap.

Kenseth moved into the series lead, 49 points ahead of Stewart. Michael Waltrip, who came into the race as the leader, never got into contention, finished 27th and fell to third, 75 points behind.

Labonte's victory vaulted him from 13th to fifth, 108 behind Kenseth and nine behind fourth-place Jimmie Johnson, who blew an engine and finished 32nd after running in the top 10 most of the day.

The race went 135 laps -- 212.5 miles -- before Mark Martin's second blown engine in as many weeks brought out the first of seven caution flags. The average speed to that point was more than 177 mph and Labonte's winning average was 146.048.

The pace took a heavy toll, with nine cars leaving the race with blown engines. Hardest hit was Roush Racing, which lost Martin, Kurt Busch and Burton to engine problems. Ricky Rudd, driving for the Wood Brothers, also went out with broken Roush engine.

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