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HMS Notes: Atlanta

ATLANTA (March 11, 2004) – Through the first three NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races of the 2004 season, Terry Labonte is one of only four drivers who have finished in a higher position than they started in each event.

Despite an average start of 36th, the two-time champion has three top-20 finishes, including a 17th-place effort last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“There’s no doubt that part of our program needs to get better,” said Labonte, referring to the team’s qualifying efforts.  “We qualified poorly for both races in Atlanta last year, but hopefully our test there (March 2) will help us.”

The only others who have improved from start-to-finish in each of the first three races are Ward Burton, Derrike Cope and Matt Kenseth.

‘25’ TEAM AT ATLANTA:
During the last four seasons (eight races), the No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports team has earned one win, four top-fives and five top-10 finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway, including a ninth-place finish at the high-speed track in March 2003.

TAKING NO CHANCES:
The members of Kellogg’s Racing are not overly superstitious, but the team did have an issue with occupying the No. 13 garage stall at Las Vegas.

After Labonte struggled in practice Friday and qualified just 37th, the crew found yet another novel use for duct tape, applying a black strip to the garage entrance to transform the “13” into “131.”

Although the change didn’t yield a victory, Labonte’s fortunes did improve somewhat.  He was ninth in Saturday’s early practice and finished 17th in the race.

GOING FOR EIGHT:
Car owner Rick Hendrick has seven victories at Atlanta, tying him with Joe Gibbs for third on the all-time list.

The Wood Brothers have a dozen, while Junior Johnson and Richard Childress have nine apiece.

ATLANTA MARKED FIRST IN ‘25’ FOR VICKERS:
Brian Vickers celebrated his 20th birthday last fall at Atlanta Motor Speedway by qualifying fourth for the Cup Series race at the 1.54-mile oval.

“There’s a level of comfort knowing we’re going back to a track where I’ve run before,” Vickers said.  “We qualified well at Atlanta last fall and this No. 25 team seems to run strong there every year.

“We have every intention of continuing that level of performance.”

The October 2003 event marked the first start for Vickers as driver of the No. 25 Chevrolets for Hendrick Motorsports.

STRIKING DISTANCE:
Labonte is 17th in the NEXTEL Cup standings entering this weekend’s Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta, but is just 35 points behind 10th-place Casey Mears.

Only drivers in NASCAR’s Top 10 and others within 400 points of first place after 26 events of this year’s 36-race schedule will be eligible to participate in the “Chase for the Championship” over the final 10 weeks of the season.

“I’m really not in favor of the new points format for the final 10 races, but we have to play the game like everyone else,” Labonte said.  “We really haven’t had what you’d consider a ‘great’ run through the first three races this season.  But we’re only 35 points out of 10th place, which is a lot better than where we were a year ago.”

VICKERS AT VEGAS:
Vickers, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender, finished 23rd on Sunday at Las Vegas after running out of fuel on the event’s final lap.  The Thomasville, N.C., native was 15th at the time in the No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevy.

LABONTE STILL GOING:
By running to the finish at Las Vegas, Labonte extended his series-high streak of consecutive races without a DNF (did not finish) to 45.  The last time he failed to complete a race was in the fall of 2002 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

The modern-era record is 56 in a row, set by teammate Jeff Gordon in 2001-02.

ROOKIE SHOWS QUALIFYING PROWESS:
Since climbing aboard as driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 entry seven races ago, Vickers has earned five top-five starts, including outside poles at Phoenix and Rockingham, N.C., last fall.  He qualified third last week at Las Vegas.

ANOTHER STREAK:
Labonte has now gone 18 races without the need of a provisional starting position, his longest such streak since he put 24 straight races together in 1998.

CHASSIS NO. 2551 FOR GMAC RACING:
The No. 25 GMAC Financial Services team will field Hendrick Motorsports Chassis No. 2551 this weekend.  While the Atlanta race will be the car’s first event of 2004, it was run by Vickers at Phoenix in 2003, finishing 13th.

The car also saw action at New Hampshire International Speedway in September and at Pocono Raceway in July, earning third and seventh-place finishes by the team, respectively.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY:
Brad Pickens, gas man for Kellogg’s Racing, will celebrate his 30th birthday Friday.  A native of Greer, S.C., Pickens is in his fifth year with the No. 5 team.

HOMECOMING:
Two of Pickens’ teammates are natives of Georgia.  Tire carrier Jason Jones is from Rhine, located about 150 miles southeast of Atlanta, while Richard Young, who provides pit support and cooks the team’s meals at the track, is from Atlanta.

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