FONTANA, Calif. -- Bobby Labonte, the subject of death rumors earlier in the day, proved Friday afternoon he is very much alive, winning the pole position for the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway.
Team officials began receiving phone calls and e-mails asking about Labonte after a radio station in Nashville, Tenn., reported the driver had been killed in a car accident in California.
"It's been kind of tough because I'm away from my family and it bothers me I'm not there with them when something like this happens," Labonte said. "My wife's pretty mad, but she's glad, too, that I'm OK.
"It didn't really bother me. Mostly, my wife didn't want someone to say something to our son and scare him," added Labonte, who came up with his 17th career pole and first since last September in Loudon, N.H.
The much-anticipated debut of Shawna Robinson, trying to become the first female driver to race in Winston Cup in 12 years, was a flop.
The rear end in her Kranefuss Racing Ford broke during her warmup lap on the 1´-mile oval and she pulled slowly onto pit road without qualifying.
"I can't even tell you how disappointing this is," said Robinson, holding back tears. "If I start to tell you, I'll get real upset. It wouldn't be better if you didn't qualify, but when you get an opportunity taken away, it's tough.
"Honestly, my dream is crushed. I want to do this more than anything in the world and now I've got to wait until Michigan (in June), and that's hard."
Robinson, who was fast enough in testing here earlier this month to have made the field, said she was confident even after running poorly in Friday's practice.
"We struggled just because I wasn't comfortable and couldn't get what I wanted right," Robinson said. "But I know how to get around this race track from testing. I drove into (turn) 1 just like I wanted to and got off into 2 and, as soon as I got off of 2, it felt like I went into neutral. But it didn't go into neutral. The rear end broke."
Robinson, who had hoped to race in six Winston Cup events this season before making a run for rookie of the year in 2002, will try again on June 8 in qualifying at Michigan International Speedway.
Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion, is off to a slow start in 2001. He goes into Sunday's race tied with older brother Terry Labonte for 14th in the standings, trailing series leader Dale Jarrett by 379 points after the first nine races.
After coming up with only one top-10 finish in his first seven starts this season, Labonte appears to have turned things around with an eighth and a fifth in his last two races.
"This team just keeps working and working," he said of Joe Gibbs Racing. "This is a brand new race car and we just tuned on it all day long. We didn't start out very fast.
"We tuned the motor up and it definitely came to life. I didn't think it would go that fast."
Labonte's pole-winning Pontiac turned a lap of 182.635 mph, edging the Ford of Todd Bodine, who had a 182.565.
Jeremy Mayfield, the defending race winner, qualified at 181.910 in a Ford, alongside the Pontiac of Labonte's teammate, Tony Stewart, who turned a 181.887.
Robert Yates Racing teammates Jarrett and Ricky Rudd swept the third row at 181.768 and 181.759 in a pair of Taureses, followed by the Chevrolet of Steve Park at 181.667 and the Pontiac of Johnny Benson at 181.543.