Originally created 02/15/99

It wasn't good day for Labonte



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Bobby Labonte rolled his car into the line by the garage, got out, and stared at the roof of his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac for several long seconds.

Then, with a quick shake of his head, he strode off toward his trailer.

His body language made it pretty obvious that it had not been a good day at Daytona International Speedway. It wasn't for Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart, either. Engine troubles plagued both all day, turning two of the past week's strongest cars -- Stewart started on the outside pole and Labonte the No. 3 position -- into also-rans at the 41st Daytona 500.

Labonte was particularly frustrated by the mechanical problems. He begrudgingly granted an interview request as he hurried to his trailer, but after delivering several one-word answers, Labonte broke away and again headed for his trailer.

No, it definitely had not been a good day. And it wasn't going to be a good night, either, because Labonte admitted he was going to dwell on how he turned his start from the No. 3 position into a 25th-place finish.

"There was something wrong with the engine," Labonte muttered in his only complete-sentence response.

Problems with the engine -- he eventually had to change a spark plug and tape down his distributor cap -- and ignition arose around Lap 50. Until then, Labonte twice had led the race for a total of 20 laps, and it looked as if his car -- which had been among the fastest all week and had won one of Thursday's Twin 125s -- was strong enough to put him into position to win his first Daytona 500.

But then the engine trouble started, and Labonte, within the span of eight laps, dropped out of the top 10.

"We were really strong early on and were able to take the lead and get our five bonus points out of the way quick," Labonte said after he cooled off for 30 minutes. "But it developed a miss pretty early and I kept falling slowly back. We still don't know what it was.

"It's disappointing because we showed from the start we were one of the cars to beat."

Labonte's finish was especially disappointing because of the success his team has had at Daytona International Speedway. He has finished runner-up in the 500 twice, including last year, and won the pole for both races at DIS last year.

But as bad as Labonte's day was, it was still better than what Stewart experienced. The rookie finished 28th, completing only 181 laps. But unlike Labonte, Stewart struggled early in the race, committing the classic rookie mistake on Lap 5.

After starting on the outside pole, Stewart got out of the draft, fell between two lanes of cars and dropped near the back of the pack. He slowly made his way back to the top 10 before ignition problems on lap 117 hurt any chances of winning the race. His car went behind the wall for repairs and he returned on lap 129.

"I've brought all my IRL bad luck over here," said Stewart, who picked up $102,204 and 11 points in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. "We felt jinxed.

"We kept making adjustments and the car kept getting better. We just couldn't get the motor to run."

Stewart was as mystified about Labonte's struggles as he was his own.

"Whatever happened to Bobby's car happened to ours, too," he said. "It's something inside the motor.

"But we accomplished one of our goals. We brought the car home in one piece."