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Geoff Bodine wins Charlotte pole

October 2, 1997

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ An infusion of cash is doing wonders for Geoff Bodine’s Winston Cup team.

Two months ago, Bodine was in danger of losing his status as an independent owner-driver on the Winston Cup circuit. He was short of cash and couldn’t attract investors to a team that was performing poorly and was a distant 31st in the 1997 driver standings.

Enter Jim Mattei, a Dallas-based venture capitalist who purchased a majority interest in the team in August. The team has rebounded with three top-10 finishes in its last eight events, and on Wednesday night Bodine put his Ford Thunderbird on the pole for the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

After turning a fast lap of 184.256 mph to win his first pole in more than three years, Bodine talked about how much difference Mattei’s arrival has meant to the team.

``I wouldn’t be here, and I mean that sincerely,″ Bodine said. ``I would be broke. They would probably be having an auction over at my shop just to pay the bills. That’s how bad things were.″

It was Bodine’s 36th career pole but his first since Sept. 16, 1994, at Dover, Del., a stretch of 92 races.

Now Bodine can concentrate on another drought. He is an 18-time winner on stock car racing’s premier series but has not visited victory lane anywhere since Aug. 11, 1996, at Watkins Glen, N.Y., a span of 35 races.

``We know we have the equipment right now to go out there and finish the job we just started tonight,″ said Bodine, who has worked his way back to 25th in the points standings heading into Sunday’s 500-mile event.

Bodine won the pole by edging Bobby Labonte, who went out about 20 minutes earlier on Charlotte’s 1.5-mile, high-banked oval and posted a 183.742 in his Pontiac Grand Prix.

``I knew somebody was going to bust off a good lap,″ Labonte said. ``It was getting cooler. But it was still a good run for us.″

Mark Martin, who trails Jeff Gordon by 135 points in the driver standings with five races left on the 1997 schedule, will start third Sunday after a 183.673 mph lap in a Ford.

Gordon will start alongside Martin on the second row after a 183.380 in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

``We’ve been thinking about Charlotte and running good here,″ Gordon said. ``This is the first step to that, but the race is what we’re here for.″

Dale Jarrett, who is third in the points battle, 222 behind Gordon, rounded out the top five qualifiers. Jarrett had a 183.113 in a Ford.

Labonte’s older brother, defending Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, failed to nail down a starting spot Wednesday night in a Chevrolet prepared by his reshuffled crew.

Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jimmy Johnson said crew chief Gary DeHart, battling ``a great deal of stress,″ had been granted a leave of absence and will assume a new role with the team when he returns. Team members Randy Dorton and Eddie Dickerson are serving as Labonte’s interim crew chiefs.

``Things with Gary caught us off guard a little bit,″ said Labonte, who is winless this season. He has finished 41st, 37th and 22nd in his last three races and has fallen to sixth in the points, a virtually insurmountable 622 behind Gordon.

``Right now,″ Labonte said, ``we’re trying to work on getting it back together the way it needs to be for next year.″

Labonte’s lap of 180.018 was just the 36th-fastest on a night when the top 25 spots on the starting grid were set.

He had the option of trying again today in a second round of time trials to determine the remainder of the 43-car lineup.

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