Work in Sports
In the end, Gordon and Labonte suffer similar fates
Updated: Monday May 28, 2001 8:39 AM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- Sometimes it helps to be lucky.
When it mattered in the Coca-Cola 600, two guys who had cars that looked good enough to contend -- Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte -- couldn't buy a break in time of need.
Gordon couldn't fathom his bum luck, but he didn't duck away speechless into the night. Not Labonte. The defending Winston Cup champ took his fate hard, avoiding the media as he stayed in his Interstate Batteries hauler for more than an hour after the race.
Gordon was running up front 50 laps into the race when, pitting on a yellow caution flag, the right front of his car hit the Kenny Wallace's car as he was leaving his pit stall. After winning The Winston last weekend with a backup car, Gordon fell back after the mishap and lumbered home in 29th place.
"I don't know who to blame on that one," Gordon said. "We should be aware of cars that are coming [on pit road]. We pulled out and boom -- got into Kenny Wallace. It's just unfortunate that it happened and we hope it doesn't happen again.
"Just one little thing like that can really ruin your day. To have a car that was leading the way to having a car that couldn't keep up and went three laps down, well, that's pretty frustrating."
The crew tried to fix the mangled right front, but it was never the same efficient race car.
Instead, Gordon's team could only think about one that might have slipped away.
"If we don't have the pit road incident, we've got a winning car," said Brian Whitesell, an engineer on the team. "A lot more stuff is happening this year on pit road than ever before, taking cars out of racing. It's a shame. Maybe they need to take a look at it and do something about it."
The mishap came after rookie Casey Atwood crashed, and followed an early crash by rookie pole-sitter Ryan Newman.
Two other early leaders like Rusty Wallace and Ward Burton fell off the pace as sunshine turned to darkness. But none suffered a more painfully setback than Labonte, who is still waiting for his first win of the season.
Labonte was challenging Jerry Nadeau for the lead and appeared to have the field's best car when he spun out 65 laps from the finish. He went from a run for the lead to a game of catch up, and managed to finish fifth after falling back to 17th on the restart.
"The No. 18 car [Labonte] was strong all day," Nadeau said. "By the end of the race [before the spin out], it was between me, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton."
Labonte had a clear shot at claiming NASCAR's longest race, and maybe that explains his silence.