Sunday, July 11, 2004

Justin Labonte gets first Busch win

By Nancy Armour
The Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. - When Justin Labonte rumbled off on his victory lap, waving the checkered flag from his window, it was hard to tell who was prouder - father or son.

Labonte extended his family's winning tradition to another generation Saturday, earning his first NASCAR Busch series victory at the Tropicana Twister 300 as his father Terry looked on.

"To me, personally, it was bigger than any win I've ever had," said Terry Labonte, a two-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion. "I couldn't even talk after the race. It's pretty special, it really is. I don't know what else to say."

Running on Mike Wallace's bumper for the last three laps, Justin Labonte said he didn't think he could catch Wallace. But Wallace ran out of gas after they took the white flag for the final lap, and Justin Labonte flew by him and cruised to the win.

He beat Jason Keller by 0.419 seconds. Jeff Burton was third.

"I was going to do a burnout," Justin Labonte said, "but I can remember my dad saying nobody should do a burnout."

Terry Labonte has always been understated in his victory celebrations, getting the checkered flag and holding it out the window as he takes his victory lap. There also was the matter of the engine. Justin Labonte is running part-time on the Busch series this year, and he knew he couldn't afford to blow out his best engine.

So while the rest of the field left the track, Justin Labonte drove to the flagstand and asked for the checkered flag. It dropped on the roof, and lay there for several seconds before Justin climbed halfway out of the car and grabbed it.

"He didn't have the fastest car, but something good happened to a good person and a good family, and that's pretty cool to see," Burton said. "He earned the race, nobody gave it to him. People will say he got lucky. They made the right call. They made the right calls to win the race."

And they got all the calls after the race.

Terry Labonte said his cell phone started ringing as he walked from the hauler where he'd watched the race - "Wore a hole in the top of it" - to victory lane, and didn't stop. It was still ringing about an hour later, as he and Justin talked with reporters.

Justin was in victory lane when he got a phone call from his uncle, Bobby, who won the NASCAR championship in 2000.

"I don't know where he's at, but he said he was watching on TV," Justin Labonte said. "I hate he missed it because he was a big part of this."

It was Bobby Labonte, in fact, who encouraged his nephew to keep racing after a dismal first attempt at the Busch series. Justin Labonte ran 22 races in 1999 and 2000, never finishing better than 14th.

"Honestly, I wasn't ready," Justin Labonte said. "I decided to take a step back. Bobby was the one who said you need to be racing every week. And I learned a lot from my grandpa my last couple of years because he's the one who took me racing. I hate that he's not here today because he's a big contributor."

Justin Labonte won the Late Model Stock championship last year, and made one Busch start in preparation for this year. He had run seven other races, with his best finish an 18th in Charlotte in May.

On Saturday, though, everything went his way.

Down a lap at one point, Justin Labonte caught a break when most of the leaders pitted on lap 182. He stayed on the track and worked his way up through the field, catching Wallace as they came through the first turn on lap 197.

Wallace looked as if he might be able to hold Labonte off for his second straight victory. But as they roared down the straightaway after seeing the white flag, Wallace ran out of fuel. He wound up 15th.

"I couldn't believe when he ran out of gas," Justin Labonte said. "I about ran into him."

Instead, he passed him on the outside and cruised to victory.

"I'm so proud of Justin," Terry Labonte said. "It's hard to describe the feelings, really."

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