The Winston Cup championship battle took an unexpected turn Friday when Terry Labonte, the point leader, broke a bone in his left hand in a crash during the opening practice session for the Dura-Lube 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Labonte was taken by car to West Valley Regional Medical Center for X-rays, which showed he has a broken bone just below the knuckle of his left index finger.
"It really hurts," Labonte said. "The throttle hung going into turn three and I hit the wall. I guess when I hit the wall, it jerked the wheel and I got my hand in there. I couldn't get the car stopped. It didn't have any brakes."
Car owner Rick Hendrick said Labonte would be fitted for a cast Friday night. He also said the team would fly in some special pieces of orthopedic equipment from North Carolina designed to help Labonte grip and turn the steering wheel of his Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
"I think Terry will be OK to drive," said Gary DeHart, Labonte's crew chief. "He can move his thumb and the other three fingers, and we're going to work on the steering wheel to try to give him some support.
"I talked to Terry and he's pumped up," DeHart added. "He told me we weren't going to roll over this damn easy. It's time to get tough. We've got a good backup car. We tried to psyche them out with a great car, but it bit us."
Labonte caught one good break Friday when high wind and blowing sand forced NASCAR officials to postpone the start of qualifying until today, with the entire field to be determined in one session.
"One car at a time would be hard to do," said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Winston Cup champion and now an owner-driver. "Getting the track cleaned off so it would be fair for everybody would have been a problem."
Labonte will go into Sunday's race, the penultimate event of the 31-race season, holding a 32-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and a 76-point edge over third-place Dale Jarrett.
"You hate to see something like this happen to anyone, but Terry's in a heated points race and you sure don't want to see something like this happen," said Hendrick, who was given his first Winston Cup title by Gordon last year. "We've got a whole day Saturday to figure out what we're going to do."
Labonte could skip qualifying and still make the field for Sunday's race. He has the option of taking a provisional start either as the points leader or as a former series champion, but that would mean starting from the rear of what is now expected to be a 43-car lineup.
He also could opt to have a relief driver standing by on Sunday. The driver who starts the race earns the championship points.
Labonte is the career leader in consecutive starts with 535 since January 1979.