DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 19, 2004) – As he rolls into Darlington Raceway for this weekend’s NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series 400-miler, Terry Labonte is bidding to become the first driver in five years to win back-to-back races on the 1.366-mile oval.
Labonte was victorious in last year’s Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, posting his 22nd career win. Jeff Burton was the last to win two consecutive events in Cup Series competition at Darlington, sweeping both dates in 1999.
“Terry has obviously been with Rick (Hendrick) for many years and they have a great relationship and friendship,” said Jimmie Johnson, Labonte’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “They have a great association with Kellogg’s and the entire No. 5 team. For those guys to win last year at Darlington says a lot about Terry and the growth of that race team.
“Darlington is one of the hardest tracks we go to. I think I finished second or third to him. I thought I might have a shot at getting by him. When they dropped the green flag and he took off and he had a straightaway on me by the time I cleared lapped traffic and had a chance to chase him.
“He definitely had the speed and will probably have the speed again at this race.”
There have been a number of improvements at the historic track since last season, including the installation of lights and the new SAFER barriers, which are designed to soften the impact of an accident involving the retaining wall.
Even with the changes, Labonte believes it will be the same Darlington he’s seen for more than two decades.
“I don’t really think it’ll make a big difference in how we drive that track,” Labonte said of the SAFER walls. “At Indianapolis, we use almost all of the race track between (turns) one and two, and three and four, and when they added the SAFER system, you hardly noticed the difference.
“I think you just have to adjust to what you’ve got to work with. We need to install those barriers at every track we race on.”
Labonte, driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolets, trails NEXTEL Cup points leader Matt Kenseth by 250 markers, but is just 46 behind his brother, 10th-place Bobby Labonte.
Car owner Rick Hendrick is currently second on the all-time win list at Darlington with nine, just one behind leader Junior Johnson. With the exception of 2001, Hendrick Motorsports teams have either won a race or pole at the 1.366-mile oval every year dating back to 1995.
Hendrick has seven wins in the last 17 races at Darlington, with Jeff Gordon or Labonte accounting for each of those.
Gordon has scored six victories and 13 top-10 finishes in his last 17 starts at Darlington, while Labonte has one triumph and four top-10 finishes in those same events. Gordon led at least one lap in 15 of those 17.
VICKERS THE YOUNGEST EVER AT DARLINGTON:
By virtue of winning the August 2003 NASCAR Busch Series event at Darlington as a 19-year-old, Brian Vickers became the youngest driver ever to visit Victory Lane at the historic venue.
“It was a great honor to win at Darlington in the Busch Series last season, given the history of the track,” Vickers said. “Of all places on the schedule, Darlington is my favorite because it presents so many challenges for a driver.
“From changing track conditions to its tire-eating surface, Darlington has a mind of its own.”
This week will mark Vickers’ first-ever NEXTEL Cup laps at Darlington, which will host its 100th points race in NASCAR’s premier series on Sunday.
LABONTE MAKING PROGRESS:
Through the first four races of the 2004 season, Terry Labonte is one of only three 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 and is 20th in points heading for Darlington.
The only others who have improved from start to finish in each of the first four races are Ward Burton and Kenseth.
‘25’ UP FRONT:
With a second-place qualifying effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week, GMAC Racing earned its second consecutive top-three start of the season.
The team has qualified in the top-five in six of the last eight Cup Series races, dating back last October at Atlanta, when Vickers began driving the No. 25 Chevrolets.
“As a whole, I have confidence in these guys (on the team) and I feel they’re the same way with me,” Vickers said. “We’re still getting adjusted to working together, building the chemistry within the team and getting the communication working without any problems.”
FIFTH DARLINGTON START FOR VICKERS:
Vickers, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender, has made four career starts at Darlington, all in the Busch Series.
In 2003, he finished seventh and first in the two races at the egg-shaped oval.
LABONTE DNF-FREE FOR 46 STRAIGHT:
By running to the finish of the March 14 Golden Corral 500, Labonte extended his series-high streak of consecutive races without a DNF (did not finish) to 46.
The last time he failed to complete a race was in October 2002 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
The modern-era record is 56 in a row, set by Gordon in 2001-02.
HOLD THE PROVISIONAL:
Labonte has now gone 19 races without the need of a provisional starting position, his longest such streak since he put 24 straight races together in 1998.