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Bobby Labonte knocks Earnhardt off Talladega pole
The Earnhardt Connection
Talladega, Alabama (April 24, 1998)

Dale exits his Monte Carlo.

Dale Earnhardt emerges from his Monte Carlo after an excellent qualifying run.

Bobby Labonte was willing to wait his turn Friday, and that patience paid off when he won the pole for the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Labonte's Pontiac was the 47th car among 51 that took to the track Friday, but his speed of 195.728 mph wound up first. He bumped Dale Earnhardt, who had been on the track in his Chevrolet almost two hours earlier, back to second.

"We ran good in practice, but Earnhardt ran faster than he did in practice," Labonte said. "Sometimes you pick up speed, sometimes you don't. You never really know."

Labonte, however, didn't fret about it.

He sat in the back of his team's transporter and watched the televised coverage of qualifying, partly to see if he could learn anything from what his competitors were doing and partly just to pass the time.

For a track where the cars go so fast, qualifying at Talladega's 2.66-mile oval takes forever. Each driver gets two laps, with the better speed counting as his lap of record. Since each lap takes about 50 seconds, it takes up most of an afternoon for 51 cars to get their shots it.

Earnhardt's car was fifth in the qualifying order, and he laid down a lap at 195.194 mph that gave everyone else a target. His fans loved it, waving their "3" caps and slapping high fives as the speed was posted.

Earnhardt liked it, too.

"That was an impressive lap," he said. "(Car owner) Richard (Childress) and (crew chief) Larry McReynolds and the guys back at the shop built us a great race car," Earnhardt said.  "They tested and worked awful hard on it and went back and worked some more."

Actually, Earnhardt had been a little worried about the car his team would bring to rice this weekend. It had been a little bit off the top times posted in a test session here the week after Easter. Meanwhile, the car he used to win the Daytona 500 is in the Daytona USA museum for a year, so it was not an option.

Labonte, however, did have the same car he used in the race at Daytona, the only other restrictor-plate race of the season so far. He won the pole with it for the Daytona 500 and finished a menacing second to Earnhardt in the race.

"I was the first one to see Earnhardt win at Daytona," Labonte joked on Friday. "I had the best seat in the house. I thought that was OK."

With Earnhardt's speed on the board and Labonte waiting for his time to come on Friday, they both watched 41 others took their shots. Nobody, however, could touch Earnhardt. Nobody, in fact, could even beat Terry Labonte, who had gone out third and run 194.452 mph.

Earnhardt knew all along where the real test would come.

"That 18 car has a shot at beating us," he said. "I don't know if it's good enough to stay on the pole, but it sure feels good being competitive for it."

Earnhardt had a point. He was fourth fastest in qualifying at Daytona, but in the seven races since he has not been able to make into the top 25 in qualifying.

Labonte, meanwhile, figured his task was simple enough.

"Here, you just hold it wide open and get all you can get," Labonte said.

When his turn came, Labonte got all there was. He'll start first on Sunday, alongside Earnhardt.

Earnhardt didn't appear too disappointed. It's the first time in nine races this season that he has qualified among the top 25. At Daytona, his starting position was won in a qualifying race.

Labonte led a General Motors sweep of the top seven spots, with Earnhardt's Monte Carlo the first of five Chevrolets following Labonte and another Pontiac seventh.

When Sunday comes around, Dale will be the driver to watch out for.  He has won the DieHard 500 five times and also has captured the Winston 500 twice, making him the all-time winningest driver at Talladega.  Dale also has 19 top-five finishes here and 23 top-10s, earning over $1.5 million at the track.  Don't be surprised to see a repeat of the Daytona 500.  After all, this is a superspeedway.