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Old NASCAR guard ready to shine

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2004

FORT WORTH, Texas Move over ''Young Guns,'' some of those old NASCAR drivers aren't done yet.

Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott, seasoned veterans and past champions, will start on the front row Sunday in the Samsung/RadioShack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The younger generation of drivers has dominated the early part of the Nextel Cup schedule, winning all six races. They had also filled just about every front-row starting spot until now.

''That's just going to be part of the sport,'' said Elliott, whose first full season was 1983. ''Eventually, it keeps weeding the older generation out.''

Elliott, running a limited schedule as he makes a slow transition to retirement, is in only his second Nextel Cup race this season. The 1988 Cup champion qualified for the No. 2 spot at 193.729 mph, just ahead of Kasey Kahne.

''I'm just trying to keep up with Kasey,'' Elliott said of the rookie driver who next week turns 24, half Elliott's age.

Kahne took over full-time in his Elliott's old No. 9 Dodge owned by Ray Evernham. While hoping to also run 10-12 races, Elliott is serving as a mentor to Kahne and helping in the rookie's early success.

''Absolutely, he's been a big part of it,'' Evernham said. ''There's several parts to it. Bill's certainly the icing on the cake. Even Friday when Kasey got in the car, I asked him if he had talked to Bill. He said, 'Oh yeah,' and then they ran almost identical laps.''

Labonte, in his Chevrolet, became the first multiple polewinner in Texas. No driver has won more than one Cup race at the 1 1/2-mile high-banked track.

All seven former winners will race Sunday. The highest qualifier was seventh by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who got the first of his 11 Cup wins at Texas four years ago.

Greg Biffle, who is 34 but in just his second Cup season, starts his Ford fourth. That is just ahead of another grizzled veteran, 11th-season Cup driver Joe Nemechek in a Chevrolet.

''I know what it takes to go fast here, which helps,'' said Nemechek, who has a fourth-place Cup finish, along with a Busch win and three other top-fives at Texas.

Before Labonte, Biffle was the oldest Nextel polesitter this season, at the opening Daytona 500. Ryan Newman, the 26-year-old defending Samsung/RadioShack 500 winner, and Kahne won the only other poles. Newman has a season-high three poles, and the rookie has two.

Defending series champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth is the oldest winner this season, and the 32-year-old driver has won twice. The other winners are all still in their 20s, Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.

Kenseth starts 25th at Texas, where Busch won from the back of the field in 2002 after an engine change.

After starting on the pole at Texas last year, Labonte never led a lap and finished 37th after an early crash. He had top-10 finishes the first four Texas races (1997-00), but hasn't been better than 30th since, including 42nd when he started on the outside of the first row in 2001.

''Last year, the car didn't handle well,'' said Labonte, a Texas native and TMS fan favorite who makes his 373rd career Cup start.

Labonte was 33rd last week at Bristol, a week after being the runner-up to Johnson at Darlington. It's been that kind of season for the 1996 Cup champ, who started with an 11th at Daytona and then went 25th, eighth and 18th before Darlington.

''Maybe we got the problems out of the way last week,'' Labonte said. ''It's been back and forth, so this is the week to run good. Maybe it will stay with us all week.''

Elliott, who finished 20th at Las Vegas a month ago in his only other Nextel race, led 42 of his 46 laps last year at Texas before engine problems ended his day with him in last place. His only Texas top-10 was ninth in 2002 after setting the track qualifying record.

After running full-time for 21 years, Elliott said he still feels good physically but doesn't miss the weekly grind of racing.

''I miss some people, but after listening to some of the comments after Bristol last week, I don't miss the going home angry over certain things,'' he said.

''I miss the competitive side of it, but the emotions of that up-and-down roller-coaster as the day goes on, I don't miss that side of it.''



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