Earnhardt News
2000 Season

Help needed
Earnhardt, Burton know race pretty much out of their hands
By Rea McLeroy

(October 3, 2000)
The field of potential champions is narrowing with each passing Sunday.

For weeks, the real race has been for second. Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt have swapped the position on a regular basis, gradually allowing the gap to widen among themselves and Bobby Labonte, who is in charge of the title run.

Everybody's talking about the points race. Everybody but Labonte, that is. He doesn't refuse to discuss it, he just wades carefully into conversations centering on his chances and avoids risking predictions or statements about his potential for success. Labonte is working to stay focused on winning races and taking things one weekend at a time. That's difficult to do if his mind is on the banquet in December.

He has six more races to think about. While mathematically the race isn't over, the championship is in the hands of two men. There's Labonte, fighting for his first championship after years of slowly building the Joe Gibbs operation. And there's Earnhardt, a man listed as a has-been just a few months ago.

Burton, now third, considers himself out of the running unless Labonte hits a streak of bad luck. And he's not counting on that happening. A true nice guy, Burton wouldn't wish ill fortune on someone just to benefit himself.

It's kind of like his racing. Burton nudged Earnhardt once in the closing laps of the race Sunday but backed off when Earnhardt's car slid to let the driver get things under control. He didn't want to sacrifice someone else so that he could win.

"This isn't like it was in'85 when a few people knocked everybody away and for some reason everybody took it," Burton said. "People don't take any crap anymore, so if you're gonna give it, you're gonna have to take it, and I don't want to take it."

But Burton's understanding of his points position runs deeper. He can read the numbers. He's seen Labonte's consistent and smooth run this season. A team with no unfinished races is unlikely to have a string of them in the closing six events. A team that held on to finish 10th after being hit twice at Martinsville is not going to fold.

Not at this point.

The temptation is to paint the final six races as a battle between the good guy and the bad guy, the guy in white quietly keeping order in his camp versus the man in black roughing up the interlopers. It's much simpler, though. This is a showdown between two teams that know how to win and how to win big.

Gibbs has a formidable group in his shop. Crew chief Jimmy Makar has worked with the team since it was formed. He and Labonte have spent the past five seasons learning to read each other and understanding the nuances of making quick changes in a race.

They are ready.

Richard Childress has a fortress as well. Crew chief Kevin Hamlin has been in house since 1997 and working with Earnhardt since midseason in 1998.

There are no novices in this competition.

Labonte's competitors have shaken their heads in amazement this season. When they've won races, they have looked back and there he was, following with another top-five or top-10 position. He surrendered 36 points to Earnhardt yesterday, his largest loss of points since giving up 20 to Jarrett at Bristol.

When the competitors speak of catching Labonte, they cautiously speak of bad breaks and tough luck. It's the only chance they see.

"I don't wish anybody bad racing luck, but that's what it's going to take," Earnhardt said Friday.

"I don't wish anybody any bad luck, but somebody's got to have some," he said Sunday afternoon.

Even though Earnhardt gained points Sunday, Labonte still stands 213 points ahead of the pack.

And time is running out.

"Bobby's got to keep finishing behind us," Earnhardt said. "We've got to keep gaining. It's going to take a whole lot of gaining and a whole lot of him finishing back there."



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