HAMPTON, Ga. -- Bobby Labonte was bitterly disappointed when he finished second in last season's Cracker Barrel 500. A year later, he's relieved Dale Earnhardt beat him in a photo finish.
Labonte will relish the memory of that race when he returns this weekend to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Earnhardt, killed in the season-opening Daytona 500, will be notably missed by the defending Winston Cup champion.
In last year's race, Labonte trailed Earnhardt by a car length as they began the final lap around the 1.54-mile oval. Earnhardt needed the entire race track to block Labonte's efforts to pass him, and beat him to the finish line by 0.010 seconds -- less than two feet.
''I'm going to miss that, that was pretty neat,'' Labonte said. ''You never know, you might not have had a chance to finish like that again. As it turned out, I'm glad the race finished the way it did.''
Earnhardt's victory was his record ninth at the track, which ranked as one his favorites. He had 27 top-five finishes here.
Rusty Wallace ranks Earnhardt's 1989 victory in the season-ending race at Atlanta as one of his favorite memories.
Wallace came into the race with a 78-point lead over Earnhardt in the points race and needed to finish the race within 19 places of Earnhardt to lock up the title.
''Gosh, did he make it tough on us that day,'' Wallace said. ''Before we knew it, we're running three laps down and there's Dale up front leading the thing lap after lap.''
Earnhardt won the race and Wallace finished 15th, high enough to edge Earnhardt for the Winston Cup title by 12 points.
''It was the biggest highlight of my career,'' Wallace said. ''Dale ran us 'til our tongues were hanging out. I remember it like it was yesterday.''
Without Earnhardt, Labonte is the clear favorite at the track -- he's won four of the last nine races here and trails only Bill Elliott (five) for the most victories at Atlanta among active drivers.
''We're really looking forward to Atlanta, it's one of those types of places that I have always liked from Day 1,'' Labonte said.
A return trip to Atlanta may be just what Labonte needs to jump-start his season.
He's coming off a 29th-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas that dropped the defending series champion to 19th in the standings.
He was 40th at Daytona, leaving his second-place finish at Rockingham the lone bright spot through the first three races.
''We haven't started the season the way we wanted to, but we're not out of anything yet,'' he said. ''We know we're still in it, that we're going to Atlanta and we'll have good confidence for it.''
One driver headed into Atlanta without that confidence is Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate. Accidents prevented Stewart from finishing either race here a year ago and he is hoping to change his luck this year.
Stewart, who vaulted into ninth in the standings with solid runs the last two weeks, is counting on Labonte to get him through the weekend.
''You look at Bobby's record there and not only do they qualify well, but they race well,'' he said. ''It makes the transition for me a lot easier because they have great notes for Atlanta. I know that when I go out, the setup is going to be fairly close to Bobby's.''
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