Labonte needs a victory

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

DARLINGTON, S.C. Terry Labonte has a chance to make history at Darlington Raceway, and put some life into his season.

Labonte's first win came at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway in 1980, and the latest of his 22 career victories came in September in the Southern 500 on the same 1.366-mile oval.

The two-time series champion on Sunday could become the first driver to win consecutive races at Darlington since Jeff Burton swept both events in 1999.

Labonte hasn't gotten off to the kind of start in 2004 that he and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team hoped for.

He has four finishes ranging from 17th to 24th and is 20th in the season points.

''Overall, we're not very pleased with what we've accomplished,'' Labonte said Saturday before the final practice for the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

''At times, we've run better than we've finished,'' he added. ''Sometimes that happens. We don't have the new tire and the new rules dialed in yet, but we're gaining on it.''

Labonte was referring to NASCAR's effort to make racing on the intermediate tracks the 1 1/2- and 2-mile ovals that make up about a third of the Nextel Cup schedule more exciting, promoting passing and side-by-side racing with softer tires and a shorter rear spoiler.

The changes haven't appeared to make much difference yet. And they aren't likely to on Darlington's unique egg-shaped oval, with its narrow corners made even tighter by the installation of the new barriers on the outside walls.

''Of all the tracks we go to, this is the track we run closest to the wall and the SAFER barriers have taken away a little bit of the racing groove,'' Labonte said. ''It's probably going to take a little bit of getting used to. ... When you go out there and run several laps, your tires get worn and you're not going to have quite as much room to slide around as you've had in the past.''

Labonte, who will start 26th in the 43-car field, said he was a little surprised to find that the so-called soft walls, which protrude 30 inches from the concrete wall, have changed the way he approaches Darlington's turns.

''Evidently I've used the wall to judge off here because very time I've gone into turn one I've been too low in the corner,'' he said.

''I've had to really make myself stay out a little bit farther because, when I first went out, every lap I was on the apron with my left front (tire) getting into the corner because I was so used to judging off the wall.''

Rookie Kasey Kahne will start from the pole alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kahne replaced semiretired Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge and has gotten off to a tremendous start, finishing in the top five in three of his first four Cup races, including a pair of runner-up finishes, and winning two poles.

Labonte is impressed by the 23-year-old driver, who wasn't even born when Labonte began his Cup career in 1980.

''It's been a little bit surprising,'' Labonte said. ''If it was Bill Elliott in the car, I wouldn't be very surprised, but Kasey is doing a great job.''

Series leader and defending Cup champ Matt Kenseth, who has split the wins in the first four races this season with Earnhardt, will be going after his fifth straight top 10 finish.

Throughout his championship run last season and in the first four races this year, Kenseth has been an underachiever in qualifying. That's why he was buoyed by qualifying 15th for Sunday's race.

''Hopefully, it will just mean a little less work to get up front,'' he said.

Ricky Craven, who won on this track last March from 31st, will have an even tougher task this time, starting 36th.

''We'll have to take our time and work our way through the field, just like we did last year, although it might be a little tougher this time with those soft walls out there,'' Craven said.

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