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Labonte's win solid
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Dedicated to the memory of Indiana native Kenny Irwin, more than 325,000 fans packed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Saturday to see the 7th running of the Brickyard 400. And with the laps winding down, every last fan was on their feet cheering as points leader Bobby Labonte wrestled the lead away from Rusty Wallace to win his first ever race at the Brickyard. Labonte has been hot at the Brickyard, finishing in 2nd twice and 3rd place once in the last three races, but he was never able to close the deal with a winů until today.
Rusty Wallace led the race for 111 of the first 145 laps, but Bobby Labonte would move to the front to lead the final 15 to come home with the win and the lion's share of the 6.5 million dollar purse.
The drop of the green flag brought a tremendous roar from the crowd as Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip raced for the first turn. Rudd's Yates powered Ford won the drag race and led the field through the first lap. Waltrip was glued to Rudd's bumper for the first few laps, but then Bobby Labonte worked his way under Waltrip and took off to chase Rudd. For the first 15 laps it was Rudd and Labonte who quickly opened up a 5 second lead on the field. But further back in the pack the racing was fierce, and it would bring out the first caution of the day.
With Mark Martin trying to get by Michael Waltrip for the better part of a lap. Mike Skinner decided to get behind Martin to try to push the Valvoline Ford past Wallace, but Wallace did not want to give up the spot that easily. Martin and Wallace raced down the front stretch banging fenders and rubbing tires at 190 mph, but as they entered turn 1 Martin checked up early on the throttle and Mike Skinner tapped Martin in the rear. The knock upset Martin's car causing it to spin and violently crash rear first into the turn 1 retaining wall. The back of Martin's car was demolished, but he would walk away from the wreck. Also involved in the collision were Rick Mast and Jeff Gordon. As Mast braked to avoid the accident Gordon got into the back of him, causing Mast to spin and come to a rest of the bottom of the race track. Gordon seemed to be on the losing end of the wreck as the right front of his car suffered extensive sheet metal damage. Gordon would continue after repairs, and eventually finish in 33rd, 2 laps off the pace. Gordon's car sported a special "Peanuts" paint job, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the comic strip. After the wreck, one of Jeff's pit crew was heard to mumble, "Good Grief, Charlie Brown"!
With the ensuing caution, Stacy Compton stayed on the track to lead a lap and acquire 5 bonus points before dashing into the pits. Otherwise, everyone else stopped for fresh tires and fuel. Rusty Wallace led the field back onto the track, with Jerry Nadeau in close pursuit.
When racing resumed on lap 21, it was Earnhardt Jr, Darrell Waltrip and a strong Bill Elliot rounding out the top 5. By lap 30 it was a five-car freight train that was pulling away from the field, and on lap 33, Nadeau was able to snatch the lead away from Wallace. Nadeau, who was the fastest during yesterday's happy hour, would lead the race for the next 10 laps and also lead another one under caution.
John Andretti and the Cheerios Pontiac brought out the second caution of the day on lap 43. Without warning Andretti lost the right front tire going into turn 3. Andretti hit the brakes, but the car wouldn't turn and he plowed into the outside retaining wall crushing the right front of the Pontiac. The car glanced off the wall, wobbled back onto the track before hitting the outside wall again and finally coming to a stop at the bottom of the short chute.
With the pits open on lap 44, everyone took advantage of the yellow for gas and rubber since most of the cars were now in a two-stop pit window to finish the race.
Rusty Wallace led the field back to green flag racing at lap 47; giving chase were Jerry Nadeau, Bill Elliot, Ricky Rudd and Earnhardt Jr. Wallace would keep the top spot for most of the next 100 laps, as the race would stay green flag for the remainder of the event. At the halfway point it was Wallace, Labonte, Nadeau, Rudd and Elliot. The first round of green flag pit stops started to occur at lap 79, with Jeff Burton being the first to take his car down pit road for service. Wallace gave up the lead and pitted on lap 83, stopping to change all four tires and refuel. Having never won at either of NASCAR's premier tracks, Daytona or Indianapolis, Wallace seemed to have a good chance of ending the losing streak today.
Wallace led for most of the next 40 laps, but Labonte was firmly planted on his bumper filling his rear view mirror with green and black. Labonte seemed content to run in second place, as he didn't press Wallace for the lead. Closing in on the final pit window, Wallace and Labonte had opened up a four second lead over third place Bill Elliot. But on lap 159 Labonte slipped by Wallace for the lead as Wallace dashed into the pits for the last time. Labonte pitted on the next lap and as Wallace raced down the front straight at full speed, Labonte was storming back onto the track from pit lane. As the pit lane joined back onto the speedway in the second turn Wallace and Labonte were neck and neck for the lead. Wallace had the edge, but Labonte was able to slip by underneath as he had the better line coming out of the turn. But the lead swapped again on the backstretch as Wallace was able to move back around Labonte and reclaim the lead.
Bobby Hamilton lost on engine on lap 131, but the track was clean and the race stayed green. With 15 laps to go, Wallace and Labonte were running up front with a four second lead over Elliot. With the race winding down and the possibility of bad weather moving into the track, it was time for Labonte to make his move. Labonte dove low and had a good run coming out of turn four. He had the nose of his Pontiac under Wallace but his car drifted up and rubbed tires with the Ford. The cars regained their lines, but Labonte had the advantage and stayed low going into the next turn. Labonte took the lead and never looked back. Once Labonte had taken the point, he started pulling away from Wallace, increasing his lead lap after lap. Labonte's luck held and he claimed his first ever victory at the Brickyard.
Coming into the Brickyard, Rusty Wallace had led more laps this year than any other driver on the Winston Cup circuit; he would continue that trend by leading more than 110 laps today. Unfortunately, like Jeremy Mayfield at Pocono, he just wasn't the fastest car at the finish.
The Brickyard 400 is the tour de force of the NASCAR summer racing season, but this year's race had a different ambiance to it.
Ricky Rudd qualified his Texaco Ford at 181.068 mph, fast enough to break the old qualifying record and claim the pole for the Brickyard 400. On the outside of the front row sat Darrell Waltrip. Just missing the pole by a fraction of a second, Waltrip certainly gave his Victory Tour something to celebrate. It was the first time since 1995 that Waltrip would grace the front row with his presence. Waltrip would bring the Route 66 / Big Kmart Ford home to an 11th place finish.
Brett Bodine turned in an equally impressive performance during the second round of qualifying on Friday. Bodine set a new Brickyard qualifying record with a speed of 181.072 mph; unfortunately, Bodine would start from the 26th spot on the grid and finish the race in 39th position, 5 laps down.
Two drivers were notably missing from today's Brickyard 400. After 655 NASCAR Winston Cup starts, Terry "The Iron Man" Labonte missed the event due to dizziness. Still suffering the after effects of an accident suffered in the Pepsi 400 in Daytona, Labonte will also miss next weeks event from The Glen. Todd Bodine substituted for Labonte today, finishing in 15th place, the first car to finish one lap down.
"I decided I'm going to sit out (for the Brickyard) and Watkins Glen, then pick up where we left off. It's disappointing, but this is just a sport, just a game. It wouldn't be fair to the Kellogg's team for me to start the race and come in under green, and I felt I couldn't wait for a caution."
"When you run 200 mph at this place, you've got to be right."
Jeremy Mayfield, a winner this year at Fontana and Pocono, also didn't start the race. After qualifying well on Thursday, Mayfield crashed his Mobil 1 Ford during practice Friday morning and suffered a head injury. Mayfield was released from Methodist Hospital later in the day Friday, but needed another driver for the race. Kyle Petty was chosen to pilot the Pegasus after he failed to qualify his Pontiac for the event. Petty finished 2 laps down in 32nd place.
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