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News The Earnhardt Connection

Earnhardt, Labonte cruise to qualifying victories at Daytona
SportsLine wire - '99 News

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 11, 1999) -- Bobby Labonte did something Thursday few other drivers could do in 1998 -- protect a lead with Jeff Gordon in his rear-view mirror.

Labonte held off a charging Gordon to win the first twin 125-mile qualifying race for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I'm not very good at it, but blocking is what you have to do on that last lap, so that is what I did," Labonte said.

In Thursday's second race, Dale Earnhardt kept his streak alive by winning this event for a 10th consecutive year.

The victory also extended Earnhardt's all-time victory record at Daytona International Speedway to 32.

Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 champion, started fifth but took the lead on the eighth lap. He stayed in front for the rest of the 50-lap race and will start on the outside of the second row Sunday.

"It's a brand new race car that worked good all week," Earnhardt said. "I could drive it anywhere I wanted and we have a car that is ready for Sunday."

Earnhardt finished ahead of Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Mike Skinner. Tony Stewart, the rookie who will start on the outside of the front row in Sunday's Daytona 500, finished sixth after leading the first seven laps.

Labonte, who finished second to Earnhardt in last year's Daytona 500, defeated Gordon by .163 seconds in the first race, averaging 163.517 mph in his Pontiac Grand Prix.

Jeff Burton was third, followed by Ken Schrader and Mark Martin.

Ricky Rudd finished 15th to gain the final transfer position into Sunday's race.

Gordon, who earned the pole for the Daytona 500 last weekend, led the first 39 laps. But as the field headed into the third turn, Labonte passed his brother, Terry, and was able to get a push from Schrader. That was enough to allow Bobby Labonte to pass Gordon in the fourth turn.

"We got by Terry. He slid up the race track off turn four and Schrader was pushing me, so we were able to get by Jeff Gordon," Labonte said. "The car handled great -- better than I thought it would. We put a new engine in this morning and it was a great powerplant that we put into this race car. We're excited about this.

"I have never really been in that position to be leading before. Usually, I come from sixth to second on the last lap, so I wasn't sure what to do. I'd like to say I have some good opportunities with a great bunch of guys to win the Daytona 500. I may not do it this year, but I'll be trying for a whole lot of years to come."

Gordon dropped back to third place but stayed in the lead draft of cars. He was able to pass Schrader for second place with one lap to go and, on the final lap, made a determined effort to pass Labonte for the victory. But Labonte kept Gordon behind with a variety of subtle blocks and that allowed Labonte to score his first victory at Daytona International Speedway.

"We learned we have a great handling race car, that's for sure," Gordon said. "Being out front, it's tough to hold these guys off. Bobby Labonte has a fast race car, but I'm really happy with the way our car ran today."

The only incident came on the first lap when Wally Dallenbach Jr. triggered a four-car chain-reaction crash that also involved Kenny Wallace, Don Pardus and John Andretti.

In the second race, Earnhardt took the lead when he went to the high side to pull alongside Stewart. Every other driver behind followed Earnhardt as Stewart fell further back in the field.

While Stewart is a new story for NASCAR, Earnhardt represents the same story at Daytona by winning another 125-mile qualifying race.

"It really makes you proud to come back here and be able to do this," Earnhardt said. "We're ready to put this car in the museum as the Daytona 500 winner after Sunday's race. The car is up for it and I feel like the team is also."

Earnhardt averaged 155.280 mph in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The race was slowed two times for cautions, the first after Dick Trickle and David Green crashed in the second turn on lap 26. The second came on lap 34 when Glen Morgan spun down the frontstretch. No drivers were injured.