Saturday, August 16, 2003

Michigan fixes Labonte's woes

Struggling driver sweeps season's two poles at track

The Associated Press

BROOKLYN, Mich. - There's something about Michigan International Speedway that brings out the best in Bobby Labonte.

He picked up his second straight Michigan pole, topping qualifying Friday for the GFS Marketplace 400 and earning his fourth pole at the track in the Irish Hills.

The 2000 Winston Cup champion turned a lap of 190.240 mph, just a bit shy of the 190.365 that earned him the pole on the 2-mile, high-banked Michigan oval in June.

Labonte, who has been mired in a slump during which he finished no better than 14th in his last five starts and who has fallen from fourth to seventh in the points, became the first driver to sweep the Michigan poles in a season since Bill Elliott in 1988.

Racing here also could get him back in stride, considering Labonte has won three times and finished in the top five 14 times in 22 starts.

"I just like coming here," Labonte said. "It just falls into the category of a good track. The cars can race here from the white line (at the bottom of the banking) to the white wall, which is about 100 yards. That's a lot of fun."

The qualifying session was delayed by rain for nearly two hours. Labonte said the downpour might have given him a slight advantage since he was the 16th of 43 drivers in line as the sun came out and began to bake the track surface.

"If it turned out an early draw was an advantage, today was the day," said Labonte, who finished second to Kurt Busch here in the June race in his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. "The rain gave the track a little more grip early on."

Ryan Newman, who leads the series with five poles this season, was second this time. He went out ninth and ran a lap of 189.929.

Robby Gordon, coming off a victory Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y., was third at 189.499, followed by surprising Kevin Lepage - making only his third Winston Cup start of the season - at 189.086.

Terry Labonte, Bobby's older brother, was next at 188.927. Jason Leffler, in only his second Cup race of the season followed at 188.828, with Christian Fittipaldi next at 188.803.

Rounding out the top 10 were Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney, both at 188.620, and Jimmy Spencer at 188.575.

Series leader Matt Kenseth qualified 33rd, second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 19th and third-place Jeff Gordon is 21st.

"We've started farther back than that," Kenseth said, shrugging off the poor showing.

Kenseth, who goes into the race with a 258-point lead over Earnhardt, has started better than 17th only six times but leads the series with 17 top-10 finishes in 22 starts.

TAURUS TESTING: The first on-track test of the 2004 Taurus was labeled a success by Ford officials and driver Dale Jarrett.

Jarrett drove the car, built by the Wood Brothers team, Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"Everything went well," he said. "The car seems to be very well-balanced. They did a really good job of building the car. It looks really nice, the lines on it are good, and it did things on the race track that we think will help us to be more competitive even for next year."

So far this season, Fords have won six of 22 events and trail Chevrolet in the manufacturer's championship by 21 points. Chevys have won 11 times, while Dodge has four victories and Pontiac one.

BUSCH SERIES: Kasey Kahne earned his first series pole with a record lap in qualifying for the Cabelas 250 at Michigan International Speedway. Kahne's fast lap on the 2-mile oval was 186.490 mph, surpassing the previous mark of 185.644 set last year by Lepage.

"I thought my first pole would be somewhere else," Kahne said. "There are a lot of good drivers here this weekend - 10 Winston Cup drivers and all the Busch regular drivers. To sit on the pole and be in front of the field Saturday is a big accomplishment for this team."

David Reutimann qualified on the outside of the front row at 186.379. The second row will have Casey Mears and Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, racing in his first Busch event since 1998.

GFS Marketplace 400 Lineup

After Friday qualifying; race Sunday

At Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich. Lap length: 2 miles

1. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 190.240 mph.
2. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 189.929 mph.
3. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 189.499 mph.
4. (57) Kevin Lepage, Ford, 189.086 mph.
5. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 188.927 mph.
6. (0) Jason Leffler, Pontiac, 188.828 mph.
7. (43) Christian Fittipaldi, Dodge, 188.803 mph.
8. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, 188.620 mph.
9. (77) Dave Blaney, Ford, 188.620 mph.
10. (7) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, 188.575 mph.
11. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 188.556 mph.
12. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 188.482 mph.
13. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 188.294 mph.
14. (50) Larry Foyt, Dodge, 188.285 mph.
15. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 188.230 mph.
16. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 188.230 mph.
17. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 188.176 mph.
18. (30) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 188.162 mph.
19. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 187.970 mph.
20. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 187.916 mph.
21. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 187.671 mph.
22. (22) Ward Burton, Dodge, 187.647 mph.
23. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 187.627 mph.
24. (74) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, 187.544 mph.
25. (25) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 187.451 mph.
26. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 187.412 mph.
27. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 187.412 mph.
28. (23) Kenny Wallace, Dodge, 187.242 mph.
29. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 186.974 mph.
30. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 186.940 mph.
31. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 186.882 mph.
32. (9) Bill Elliott, Dodge, 186.829 mph.
33. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 186.727 mph.
34. (1) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 186.688 mph.
35. (10) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 186.635 mph.
36. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 186.360 mph.
37. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, Provisional.
38. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, Provisional.
39. (32) Ricky Craven, Pontiac, Provisional.
40. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, Provisional.
41. (54) Todd Bodine, Ford, Provisional.
42. (01) Mike Skinner, Pontiac, Provisional.
43. (37) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, Provisional.
Failed to qualify
44. (4) Stacy Compton, Pontiac, 185.653 mph.

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