Work in Sports
Finish fifth, win title
Labonte leads in top-5s, just like Jarrett and Gordon did
By Ryan Smithson, CNNSI.com
Think the 2000 season is vastly different from 1999?
Bobby Labonte won last weekend's Southern 500 at Darlington, and the victory just may have helped him clinch his first Winston Cup championship.
Sure, there are 10 races remaining, and 1999 champion Dale Jarrett sits just 111 points back.
But Labonte is repeating Jarrett's 1999 performance -- race-for-race. Jarrett won "just" four times last year, well behind Jeff Gordon's seven victories. But Jarrett had just two finishes of 20th or worse, and the Robert Yates driver led the standings from May, and he clinched the title with a race to go.
Bobby Labonte is repeating Jarrett's championship formula. The Joe Gibbs driver does not lead in victories either -- Rusty Wallace has won one more race this year -- but Labonte has just two finishes of 20th or worse.
Jarrett finished out of the top-10 only six times in 1999 - Labonte has finished out of the top-10 just seven times in 2000, and five of those are top-15 finishes.
Other similarities exist between Jarrett and Labonte. In 1997, Jarrett won a career-high seven times, but he lost the title by a scant 14 points to Gordon. Labonte won a career-high five times in 1999, but he finished 201 points behind Jarrett.
The bottom line: NASCAR Winston Cup's point system rewards constant top-5 finishes, not victories coupled with middle-of-the-pack showings.
Case in point: Every driver who led the series in top-5 finishes since 1996 has won the Winston Cup title. When Jeff Gordon won his first Winston Cup title in 1995, he scored just 10 top-5 finishes - Dale Earnhardt had 19 but lost the title by 34 points. A pair of 35th-place finishes at each Michigan race prevented Earnhardt from winning his eighth title.