Hamilton Gives Petty Win; Labonte Closes in on Title
Oct. 28, 1996
PHOENIX (AP) _ Petty Enterprises was once the best team in NASCAR.
Now that Richard Petty's team has its 269th win, and its first in 13 years, the retired king of stock car racing sees no reason why Petty Enterprises can't rise to the top again.
As Petty basked in the glow of Sunday's Dura-Lube 500 victory by driver Bobby Hamilton, he said, ``I've been telling you guys for a long time that once my crowd knows what winning is all about, they'll come back and win some more races.
``But this isn't no fluky deal or anything. These guys have done everything right except win a lot of the time the last two years. Now they know what it feels like to win.''
Asked if he believes his team is ready to challenge for a series title, the seven-time Winston Cup champion said, ``I don't see why not. All the parts are here, and they've been here for a while. They just had to learn how to win.''
With a record raceway crowd of 104,000 on its feet and shouting its approval, Hamilton's No. 43 Pontiac, decked out in the traditional Petty Blue and STP Red colors, led the final 30 laps on the one-mile oval.
Other team cars won over the years, but this was the first victory ever for the 43 without King Richard at the wheel. In fact, he was driving when a Petty Enterprises car last won, in October 1983 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The victory couldn't have come at a better time for Petty, a longtime county politician who is running for the office of secretary of state in North Carolina.
``Hopefully this will give me some good publicity,'' said Petty, who has been running behind rival Elaine Marshall in the polls. ``Bobby Hamilton won this race, but Richard Petty will be mentioned in the stories, and that brings my name up to people in a positive way.''
Meanwhile, series points leader Terry Labonte was able to ignore his injured hand and drive to the brink of his second Winston Cup championship, finishing a strong third.
The 1984 champion will take a 47-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and a 99-point margin over third-place Dale Jarrett into the season-finale on Nov. 10 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Labonte can wrap up the title by finishing eighth or better, no matter what his competitors do.
The 39-year-old racer, who fractured the base of his left index finger in a crash during practice Friday, wore a plastic cast with a silicone pad in the palm to protect the injury. Electrodes on the front and the back of the hand kept the pain at bay.
Those precautions worked well enough that Labonte was able to drive his Chevrolet from 30th place in the 44-car field to the lead on lap 196. He came out of the last pit stop second, but lost that spot, first to Hamilton on lap 270 and then to Mark Martin two laps from the end.
``If you would have given me a top 10 yesterday, I would have taken it and said, `Let's go on,''' Labonte said. ``This was a bonus today, finishing third.
``But we could have been better. I guess I should have left the old tires on. The old wore out ones were better than the last two we put on.''
Asked about the injured hand, Labonte said, ``We injected my hand with something, something painful when it went in. I still really can't feel anything. I'll probably pay for it tonight going home.
``At least we have some time before Atlanta. We've got to go down there and run good and do the same thing we've done the past few weeks. It's too close. If we had a big lead, it would be different. You'd ride around and stay out of trouble. But we don't have a big lead, so ... that means we've got to run good.''
Gordon, the defending series champion, said, ``We couldn't get the track position we wanted to. Once we got up front, we could run with the leaders. There at the end I felt like we could race most anybody, but it was too late by then.''
Looking at his point deficit, Gordon, who lost 15 points to Labonte on Sunday, said, ``It could be a lot worse. That's not a lot of points. We've just got to win and lead a lot of laps. Anything can happen there.''
Geoff Bodine gambled on worn tires and took the lead by staying on the track while the other leaders pitted on lap 260. But, unlike Ricky Rudd's similar gamble the previous week at Rockingham, N.C., this one didn't pay off.
At the end, Martin's teammate Ted Musgrave trailed third-place Labonte, followed by Gordon, Bodine, Ernie Irvan and Jarrett in eighth.
Hamilton, also 39, earned his first victory in his 167th career start and his second full season driving for Petty. His best previous finish was second in September 1995 at Dover, Del.
He won in record fashion, averaging 109.709 mph, breaking the mark of 107.463 set in 1994 by Labonte. Hamilton, who won $95,550, beat Martin to the finish line by 1.23 seconds _ about 20 car-lengths.
``I've watched these things before on TV and now I know what they're talking about when they say they hear all these things when they're leading at the end,'' Hamilton said. ``I heard rattles, motor knocks, the car got loose and I thought I had a tire going down ... everything you can imagine. But I know it was just me. We had more race car left all day long.''
The victory was the first for Pontiac since Ward Burton won at Rockingham in October 1995.