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Labonte Conquers Darlington!

  • Aug 31, 2003

DARLINGTON, S.C. (Aug. 31, 2003) – One of NASCAR’s most celebrated veterans capped off a memorable weekend at the sport’s oldest track on Sunday as Terry Labonte visited Victory Lane for the 22nd time in his career, winning the Mountain Dew Southern 500 under the broiling South Carolina sun.

With temperatures well over 90 degrees on the race track, Labonte stayed cool behind the wheel of the No. 5 Kellogg’s / got milk? Chevrolet thanks to a steady hand and a series of blazing-fast pit stops in the 54th and final Labor Day weekend event at Darlington Raceway.

“It’s really special for me,” Labonte said. “I was running there with Bill Elliott and I thought to myself, ‘Man, I hope one of us wins it, because we appreciate this place maybe more than some of these young guys do.’”

Labonte was running third just 50 miles from the finish when the 10th caution flag of the day flew for an accident in Turn 1. Following a stellar 13-second pit stop by the Kellogg’s / got milk? Racing crew, the two-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion returned to the track in first place.

With four fresh Goodyear Eagles for the stretch run, Labonte resumed green-flag racing and quickly built a two-second advantage over second-place Kevin Harvick.

Labonte cruised to a 1.651-second victory, leading the final 33 laps and moving within one point of 10th place in the Winston Cup championship standings heading into next weekend’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

The Corpus Christi, Texas, native started third and ran in the top 10 throughout most of the afternoon. Only minor chassis adjustments were needed to keep the No. 5 Chevrolet on pace with the leaders, including an air-pressure change on the final stop that proved pivotal.

But it was the work of his pit crew that really put Labonte in position to win.

Under the direction of crew chief Jim Long, the Kellogg’s / got milk? team consistently gained spots on pit road all afternoon, including the two positions that vaulted Labonte from third to first on the final round of stops.

“I knew that last stop was going to be pretty fast,” Labonte said. “These guys have done some that have been even quicker than that this year. They’ve been awesome on pit road and the crew earned this win.”

Twenty-three years ago, Labonte notched his first-ever Winston Cup victory at Darlington in the Southern 500. Next year’s event will be run in November, with California Speedway filling the holiday slot usually reserved for “The Lady in Black.”

Sunday’s victory ended a 156-race drought for Labonte, whose last win came in March of 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway. He became the fourth of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to win a Winston Cup race in 2003.

Driving the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, Jimmie Johnson also fared well at Darlington, starting on the outside pole and finishing third to earn his seventh top-five finish of the year.

“I’m very happy,” Johnson said. “But I just can’t say enough for Terry Labonte and the whole ‘5’ team. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports works so hard, and I’m glad they had a great day, and also a great day for the Lowe’s team.”

Picking up 170 championship points, Johnson remains fourth in the driver standings after 25 of 36 races.

After starting 26th, Joe Nemechek finished 21st at Darlington in the No. 25 UAW-Delphi Chevy, followed by 32nd-place Jeff Gordon, who qualified 14th in the No. 24 DuPont Monte Carlo.

Improving one position, Nemehcek is currently 23rd in points, while Gordon remains fifth overall.

On Saturday, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series will visit Richmond International Raceway, where Nemechek won in May after qualifying second, one spot behind Labonte, who earned the pole position. The race will be carried live on TNT and MRN Radio beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

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