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LABONTE CARRYING BANNER FOR PONTIAC AT DARLINGTON

Bobby Labonte is aware that history is against him going into today's TranSouth Financial 400 (12:30 p.m., ESPN; Radio 1330, 1340).

No Pontiac driver has won a race at Darlington Raceway since the late Joe Weatherly took the checkered flag at NASCAR's oldest speedway in 1963.

Labonte, coming off a dominating victory two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway, is the point man in what Pontiac officials are counting on as a resurgence by their brand.

Going back to the end of last season, Labonte has won two of the past five Winston Cup events, as well as finishing second in the Daytona 500. Pontiacs also finished among the top three in the last eight events of 1997.

"Maybe I can make like a modern-day Joe Weatherly," Labonte said. "I've been hearing all week about how it's been so long since a Pontiac won this race, but we usually run good here. Maybe we can win it."

Standing in his way is a squadron of Ford Tauruses, led by pole-winner Mark Martin and teammate and fellow front-row starter Jeff Burton.

The 400-mile race on Darlington's treacherous 1.366-mile oval will be a thorough test of NASCAR's latest move to even out the competition among the Fords, Pontiacs and Chevrolets.

The stock car sanctioning body announced Monday that it was cutting two inches from the width of the Tauruses' rear spoiler. That follows closely a quarter-inch being lopped off the top of that same spoiler before the Atlanta race.

Other than Labonte's strong showing, the GM cars again were left in the dust in Atlanta, where eight Fords followed the No. 18 Pontiac across the finish line.

NASCAR impounded two cars of each make for a trip to the wind tunnel and the narrowing of the Ford spoilers is the result of those tests.

The Ford teams immediately began to gripe that the handling of their cars was going to be awful.

"Taking away that quarter-inch was a small step, but taking off the sides (of the spoiler) is like stepping off a ladder," Martin said.

Still, after Fords took the top five positions and six of the first seven in qualifying for today's race, the GM teams again were unhappy and said something more needed to be done.

Martin, who won this year in Las Vegas, where Fords took 13 of the top 14 positions, said, "Right now, there are a lot of Ford teams that are on target. If we keep running good, they'll just take the spoiler clear off the thing."

Mike Skinner, Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt's teammate and a Chevy driver, said, "Maybe instead of taking the spoiler off the Fords, they should put more spoiler on us."

"I know NASCAR is trying to make this thing more even as they go," added Skinner, who will start 19th. "All we can do is try to do like Sterling Marlin did (Friday) and be best in class."

Marlin will start his Chevrolet eighth in the 43-car lineup.

Ward wins first pole

PHOENIX -- Former motorcycle racer Jeff Ward barged past Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart and other big-name drivers to win his first pole in the closest qualifying session in IRL history.

Ward, the 1997 IRL rookie of the year, circled the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway in a record 20.839 seconds, averaging 172.753 mph, to earn the right to start on the inside of the front row today in the Dura-Lube 200 (4 p.m., Ch. 7).

"Qualifying isn't my forte, so I'm very pleased with this lap," Ward said. "We had a good practice this morning, and I knew there was something left in the car."

Ward and 27 other qualifiers relegated defending Phoenix champion Jim Guthrie, his former ISM Racing teammate, to the pit area for the 200-mile main event.

Guthrie, who held off Stewart last year in a wreck-marred race that featured nine caution flags, is the first defending IRL race champion to fail to qualify the next year. His ouster capped a disappointing week that began when ISM told him Monday that he no longer had a ride.

After breaking two Oldsmobile Aurora engines in his G Force racer, Guthrie had oil-pressure problems in the third and turned a best lap of 164.399 mph -- too slow for the 26-car original starting grid.

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