Terry Labonte survived a war of attrition to win at last in his home state
Texas motor speedway is no longer a driver's nightmare, but it's still a tough track. Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner and Mark Martin all slammed hard into the wall in separate crashes caused by blown right front tires in Sunday's Primestar 500, which was won under caution by a Texan, Terry Labonte. Martin was unhurt, but Skinner fractured the same right shoulder that he broke at this track a year ago. Gordon suffered bruised ribs and said of his crash, which came on Lap 69 of the 334-lap race, "That's the hardest I've ever hit a wall, that's for sure."
Despite those accidents, the third Winston Cup race at the star-crossed, $260 million speedway was much safer than the wreckfests of 1997 and '98. Drivers had complained vehemently after those races about the abrupt transition from banked turns to flat straightaways and about the narrow exit to Turn 4. Moreover, a water table created leaks in the asphalt last year, causing cars to lose traction. As part of a $3.5 million renovation, the track was repaved before this year's race, the exit to Turn 4 was widened and the transitions were made more gradual. "People were able to race well today," said Labonte. "I can't compare it to the first two years here."
Labonte, a native of Corpus Christi, had never won a major race in his home state. He passed Dale Jarrett to take the lead with 12 laps to go. When the caution flag came out with two laps remaining, Labonte was able to cruise to the finish as 220,000 spectators, including Texas governor George W Bush, cheered. It was the 21st career Winston Cup victory for the 42-year-old Labonte, but he said, "To me, it was the biggest race I've ever won."
NASCAR Rookie Loves This Game
Tony Stewart has been driving full time on the Winston Cup circuit less than two months, but he's already so content that he says, "This is where I want to be for 20 or 30 years. This is where I want to retire."
In his previous life Stewart was the moody poster boy of the fledgling IRL, a circuit that frustrated him "not because of the people," he says, "but because having motor failures and dropping out of races that we had a shot of winning was difficult."
Stewart, 27, is one of only 13 drivers to finish all six Winston Cup events this year, and at Texas on Sunday he finished sixth for the second consecutive race. Elliott Sadler, second in the rookie point standings, hasn't come in better than 10th, and the third-best newcomer, Roy (Buckshot) Jones, hasn't done better than 29th.
Though Stewart won the IRL championship in 1997 and an unprecedented triple crown of U.S. Auto Club titles in sprint, midgets and Silver Crown cars two years earlier, he realizes how much more difficult it is to win a Winston Cup points championship. For starters, the 3,400-pound stock cars are twice as heavy and don't handle as precisely as the open-wheel cars on the IRL circuit Also, he has been hindered by a lack of experience in giving his crew input on chassis adjustments that may be needed during a race. "Everything I've done in the past, I'm throwing out the window," Stewart says. "Every time I go out and practice with these guys, I'm reminded that I'm a rookie."
Old-timer Earns His Keep