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Aumann: Labonte works hard for pair of wins at Pocono

August 02, 2012, Mark Aumann,

The prevailing wisdom on big, flat tracks such as Pocono Raceway is that you must qualify near the front to have any chance of winning. But Terry Labonte proved not once, but twice, that as long as you have a good car -- and a little bit of luck -- you can start near the back of the pack there and still get to Victory Lane.

Labonte started 23rd and won the 1989 Miller High Life 500 when many of the top contenders had issues. And six years later, he made it even harder on himself, going from 27th to first and taking the lead when Jeff Gordon made an uncharacteristic mistake on the final restart.

Pocono Results

1989 Miller High Life 500
2. 11 33 H. Gant Olds
3. 7 3 D. Earnhardt Chevy
4. 10 25 K. Schrader Chevy
5. 17 75 M. Shepherd Pontiac
2. 21 16 T. Musgrave Ford
3. 1 25 K. Schrader Chevy
4. 15 4 S. Marlin Chevy
5. 17 26 H. Stricklin Ford

When Darrell Waltrip left Junior Johnson for Rick Hendrick at the end of the 1986 season, it opened the door for Labonte to take over the No. 11. Labonte won a pair of races at North Wilkesboro during the next two seasons, finishing in the top five in points twice, but after the team switched from Chevrolet to Ford in 1989, Labonte got off to a terrible start.

He lost engines at Atlanta and Charlotte and crashed at Richmond, leaving him mired in 14th place when the series visited Pocono that June. But once he got in the car for that weekend's first practice, Labonte sensed something was different -- even though he qualified poorly.

"Before we qualified, I told the guys this is the best car I ever had at Pocono and we were really quick in practice," Labonte said. "I was disappointed that we didn't have a good qualifying run but it didn't make any difference. It's a long, hot race."

What Labonte needed -- in addition to a fast car -- was a race filled with attrition. And he got just that. One by one, all of the cars considered to be prime contenders for the win ran into difficulties.

Geoffrey Bodine was running third when he crashed in Turn 1 on Lap 79. Waltrip was running second when his engine let go on Lap 104. Even Rusty Wallace, who led 100 laps and seemed to have things well in hand, couldn't avoid disaster.

Wallace had a 6-second lead over Labonte when he had a left-front tire blow on Lap 159, resulting in a cut oil line and a long stay in the pits.

"It's hard to put it into words, the way we ran out there and then for this to happen," Wallace said. "I really ran fast. It handled perfect. I thought I had the class of the field."

A caution flag with 16 laps to go allowed the leaders to make one final pit stop for fuel and tires. However, Larry Pearson stayed out and took the lead. But once the green dropped on the restart, there was no way Pearson was going to hold off Labonte on old tires.

"I just dove under [Pearson] and took off," Labonte said.

Labonte beat Harry Gant to the line by 1.88 seconds to record his first win at Pocono. His second came under similar circumstances.

This time, Mother Nature played a factor. Heavy fog forced cancellation of practice for the 1995 UAW-GM Teamwork 500, and Labonte had to guess at a setup for qualifying, which put him deep in the field.

With some help from Hendrick teammates Ken Schrader -- who won the pole -- and Gordon, Labonte made a couple of changes before the race to help the handling of his No. 5 Chevrolet. And from the drop of the green flag, he was one of the fastest cars on the track.

But it also was evident that Gordon's car was superior to the rest of the field, and unless something unusual happened, he felt like he had things well in hand.

Unfortunately for Gordon, unusual things did happen. First, Ward Burton spun out directly in front of the No. 24 on Lap 182, forcing Gordon to take evasive action to miss him. Then Pancho Carter crashed nine laps later, bringing out the final caution of the day.

Labonte lined up directly behind Gordon but was more concerned about holding his position than having a chance to pass the leader.

"I was ready to settle for second," Labonte said. "I didn't think we had much for Jeff."

But then the unthinkable happened. Trying to get back up to speed with six laps to go, Gordon grabbed the wrong gear on the restart, resulting in a big puff of white smoke out of the exhaust -- the tell-tale sign that he had bent a valve inside the engine.

"I made a mistake," Gordon said. "It wasn't a good day ... after the car ran so great. We know we're young and we're going to make mistakes."

As Gordon slowed heading into Turn 1, a surprised Labonte darted to the inside and found himself with nothing but clean air and a clear race track ahead. Labonte eventually pulled away to beat Ted Musgrave to the line by 1.68 seconds.

In his post-race comments, Labonte admitted he got handed an unexpected victory. But at the same time, he made it clear that sometimes good things happen when you're in the right place at the right time.

Terry Labonte scored 12 of his 22 wins in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 car and drove it to the 1996 championship. (Getty)

"We could pretty much get away from the rest of the field, but not catch him," Labonte said. "Then his engine let go, right there at the finish line. Jeff's car was a little better than ours, but it's one of those deals where you've got to be consistent all day."