Gordon, Labonte big winners in NAPA 500

Monday, November 19, 2001

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jeff Gordon's fourth Winston Cup championship has put him in elite company.

The Rainbow Warrior, who led the Winston Cup points for most of the 2001 season, joined NASCAR's two greatest stars, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, as the only drivers with more than three titles.

The latest crown, considered virtually inevitable for more than a month, finally came Sunday as Gordon finished sixth to Bobby Labonte, whose own championship reign ended in victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Labonte, an easy winner of the title last year, took the NAPA 500 when Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jerry Nadeau, the defending race champion, ran out of gas with a half-lap to go in a bid for his second career victory.

"I'm just blown away," a relieved Gordon said after climbing out of his No. 24 Chevrolet. "This is our fourth time doing this, and it seems like the first time all over again. Each one gets sweeter than the last."

Although he had a virtually insurmountable lead over Ricky Rudd, finishes of 25th and 28th in the last two races had left Gordon frustrated and uncharacteristically grim going into the penultimate race of the season.

Even with another subpar performance, Gordon would have clinched the title simply by starting the New Hampshire 300 on Friday. That wasn't the way the 30-year-old champion wanted to get the clincher, though.

"We needed to bounce back," Gordon said. "This team has a lot of pride and we didn't want to win it on another bad day."

His fourth title in nine years leaves Gordon three behind Petty and Earnhardt, who was killed in the February in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Gordon, whose previous titles came in 1995, 1997 and 1998, saluted Earnhardt, whom he succeeded as the biggest winner among active drivers.

"Dale Earnhardt taught me how to race for the championship and a lot of other things," Gordon said. "We miss him a lot.

"I'm so proud to win this Winston Cup championship. I know if he was here he'd be the first one over congratulating us."

Nadeau's bad luck

While Gordon was celebrating with his Hendrick Motorsports team, Nadeau was lamenting his back luck.

"Half a lap to go and I just wasn't able to get there," Nadeau said. "We just ran out of fuel and I'm not sure why."

Labonte, who has suffered through a frustrating season, led only 13 of the 325 laps and lost the lead to Nadeau with 20 remaining. But Nadeau's Chevrolet, which had built a lead of almost a full straightaway, suddenly began swerving back and forth as the driver tried to slosh more gas into the engine.

The engine finally quit as the car hit the end of the back straightaway and Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac roared past the coasting No. 25 Chevy as the two came off the fourth turn.

"They said he was close," Labonte said. "He ran me hard there and my tires gave out, but I just tried to stay within sight of him. He just whipped up on us until he ran out of gas.

"We'll take them any way we can get them. We've had some bad luck at times this year, and something finally went our way at the end."

It was Labonte's second victory of the year and the 18th of his career. It also was his fifth victory at this track, all of them coming in his last 11 starts at the suburban Atlanta track.

Gordon came into the 500-mile race with a 305-point lead over runner-up Rudd and knowing he could wrap up the championship in several ways, including simply finishing ahead of Rudd's No. 28 Ford.

The struggling Rudd had a miserable day, bouncing off a wall in the early going because of a deflating tire and finishing six laps down in 35th. Worse, he lost second place to Tony Stewart, who finished ninth.

"We figured it was just a matter of time before Jeff wrapped it up," Rudd said. "We've been fading hard the last three weeks, and I'm not really sure what's wrong. We've got to get back on the program." Stewart leads Rudd by 26 points heading to Loudon, N.H., for the race postponed in September after the terrorist attacks.

Sterling Marlin and top series rookie Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt's replacement at Richard Childress Racing, also got past Nadeau at the end, finishing second and third --more than 2 seconds behind the winner.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started from the pole, was dominant through most of the event, leading seven times for a race-high 171 laps before fading at the end and finishing seventh.

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