Even though the Winston Cup championship can't be won in the AC-Delco 400, it could be lost.
With three drivers locked in a tense struggle for the prestigious stock car title with three races remaining, what happens in the 400-mile race today at North Carolina Motor Speedway (12:30 p.m., TNN; Radio 1330, 1520) will likely be pivotal.
Ironically, none of the lead trio has had a lot of success at the 1.017-mile oval.
Jeff Gordon, who leads teammate Terry Labonte by one point and Dale Jarrett by 92, won the race here in the spring of 1995. But that is his only top-10 finish in seven career starts at NCMS. In fact, his average finish here is 25.285 -- including four races he has failed to finish.
"I feel real good about Rockingham even though we haven't had good finishes here," said Gordon, the defending series champion. "We've run good here a lot. Hopefully, we won't have any problems and give up our performance level. None of the three of us can afford a bad day here or you might be out of it."
Labonte, who has been around the sport considerably longer than his 25-year-old teammate, has two wins, 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s in 28 starts here. But his average finish is only 13.171, and he has failed to finish seven times.
"We've just got to go out and do the best we can, try to lead and try to win," said Labonte, the 1984 Winston Cup champ. "We've been through it before, and so has the 24 (Gordon) team, so I don't know if that's a big plus or minus."
Jarrett has no wins, three top-10s and has failed to finish five times at Rockingham in 18 starts, but he did finish second to Dale Earnhardt in February.
Jarrett, who will start from the pole for only the third time in his career today, is the long shot in this three-way race, never having been involved in a championship battle this late in the season.
His car blew an engine Saturday during practice but his team fitted a new engine in the car before the final practice Saturday afternoon.
"I probably couldn't have any tougher guys in front of me, trying to catch them," said Jarrett, whose father, Ned, won two Winston Cup titles.
"Terry obviously knows what to do to win a championship, and Jeff and his team just won one last year, so I don't foresee them faltering because of any type of pressure.
"They may have their problems, but it will probably come from racing hard, not from pressure. The key for us is to gain some points and keep the three-way championship battle going to (the season-finale in) Atlanta."
Is Jarrett feeling any extra pressure being in this situation?
"Not really," he said. "I just feel like I have to go out and do the things that I've been doing. . . . Certainly we would like to be closer in the points, or even leading, but this is not a bad position."
Gordon will start third and Labonte 19th in the 42-car lineup.
Mark Martin, who has not won a Winston Cup race in more than a year, earned his sixth BGN victory of the season, and second in a row on Saturday. He passed Jarrett for the lead with 15 laps remaining in the AC-Delco 200.
Labonte's crew, headed by crew chief Gary DeHart, won the 30th annual Unocal Pit Crew Championship on Saturday. The winners changed four tires and poured in two cans of gasoline in 22.056 seconds, beating the winning time from the previous year by 1.6 seconds.
Gordon's crew, led by Ray Evernham, wound up second in 23.502, followed by Rick Mast's crew, with crew chief Kevin Hamlin, at 23.854.