Bobby Labonte lucks into Homestead victory

Heartbreak for Bill Elliott was hoopla for Bobby Labonte, as a right rear flat on Elliott's car, with one lap to go, sent Labonte to victory lane for the second time this season. Labonte led just one lap all day, but it was the one that counts:...

Heartbreak for Bill Elliott was hoopla for Bobby Labonte, as a right rear flat on Elliott's car, with one lap to go, sent Labonte to victory lane for the second time this season. Labonte led just one lap all day, but it was the one that counts: the very last one.

"He (Elliott) started wiggling and I just started screaming on the radio," said Labonte. "It was a gift. It was way cool for us to win a race. We've been a long time without we just had a good day, a good car all weekend. We had a lot of fun.

"His misfortune was our fortune."

Bill Elliott appeared to be primed to earn his 45th career victory, as he began to slow on the races closing laps. It became clear that he had a flat tire, and Labonte easily sailed past the No. 9 Dodge to earn his 21rst career victory.

"I honestly thought I can't win unless something happens," said Labonte of what he was thinking before Elliott's tire went flat. "And low and behold something happened. He was fast all day, and it was just bad luck on his part."

Elliott finished eighth, after leading a race high 189 laps.

"It was just one of those days," said Elliott. "We had a right rear go down and it was just an unfortunate thing. Our Dodge ran so well today, and the team did such a good job. I'm proud of every one of them."

Kevin Harvick rebounded from a lap five crash to finish second. It is his 18th top ten of the year. Harvick jumps a spot to finish fifth in the year's final point report.

"I hate that I was passing Ryan Newman and those guys and I got loose," Harvick stated. "But I guess that's part of it. What a way to end the year."

Jimmie Johnson also survived troubles to earn a third place result. Johnson led early but experienced a flat left front tire on lap 35 forcing the No. 48 Chevy to dip onto pit road under green flag conditions. Johnson fell one lap down, but was able to get around the leader on lap 79. Shortly thereafter, when the caution came out, Johnson rejoined the lead lap line of cars.

"When we got the lead early," said Johnson, who finishes second in championship points. "I knew it was too easy. Something had to come up. We had a problem with the left rear tire or something on the left side, and we had to come in and pit.

"We had to fight to get our lap back, but we had such a great race car and such good work on pit road that we were able to advance and then on top of that, we had a fast race car. We got our lap back and we're able to finish third."

Johnny Benson finished fourth in his final drive in the No. 10 MB2 Pontiac.

"We had a semi-bad year," said Benson. "I hate it. I think we all suffered from it, them wanting to make a change. I'm not going to complain. We had 15 top-5 finishes and a win for the team, and that's great. They can't take that away from me and no one can take it away from them either, so that's cool."

Jeff Gordon rounds out the top five, and ends 2003 fourth in rankings. It is the tenth straight year that Gordon has finished in the top ten in points.

"It certainly was an awesome finish for us," said Gordon. "We had a bunch of top-fives, a couple of wins in the last few races and I couldn't be happier with the effort we put out today. We didn't have the best car."

A week after the crowning Matt Kenseth as the final Winston Cup champion, the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway was anything but anti- climatic. With a million dollars on the line between positions two through six in championship standings, top racers battled as if it were to the death.

The final standings picture began to take shape on just lap five as Kevin Harvick navigated his No. 29 Chevy three-wide into turn two. Harvick lost control of his ride slamming into the side of Ryan Newman's No. 12 Dodge.

Newman, who entered Homestead fourth in standings, shot up the track collecting the No. 97 Ford of Kurt Busch, who was tenth in standings.

"I was running there three wide," said Busch. "The cars came into me. There are a lot of things you do at a brand-new track at the beginning of a race just to try to get going. I needed to finish in the top 10 in points and we didn't get that this year. It's a real bummer. I really commend the group that works with me all year.but we just never have any luck. Never."

Harvick was able to continue after making repairs on pit road. Newman and Busch were not so lucky. Both drivers had to take their machines to the garage and make lengthy repairs, rejoining the field 100+ laps down.

Busch finished 36th, Newman 37th.

The accident was costly for both racers, Newman falls one spot to end the year sixth in points. Busch loses the opportunity to make the stage in New York by finishing 11th.

"We should have been about third in points after today," said Newman, who won eight races in 2003. "But oh well. There's always next year. We'll be back and we will try and win everything we can just like this season. We learned a lot this year, and we'll try to keep learning and working hard over the winter and come back strong in 2004."

It was a tough day for the championship frontrunners all around, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s bid to finish second in the championship went into the wood-chipper late in the race when he had to pit under green to fix a flat tire. Earnhardt fell two laps down, and finished 24th.

"We should have run better," said Earnhardt, who finishes third in end-of- the-year rankings. "We wanted to run better, but the car wasn't good enough. We had a good year, had a lot of fun. I just want to go home and take some time off."

Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte round out the top ten drivers that will be celebrated at NASCAR banquet at the Waldorf- Astoria in New York City this December.

The only man who didn't have to worry about points today was Matt Kenseth and it was lucky that he didn't. On lap 29, Kenseth lost an engine and retired from the event. He finished dead last in 43rd. He was a trooper and hung out for three hours until the event finish so NASCAR could lavish him with championship goodies in front of the sell-out crowd.

"Real disappointing for the DeWalt team," said Kenseth of his lackluster finish. "This is the same way we ended last year. We blew an engine in the last race last year, too."

Notably, Jamie McMurray was named Raybestos Rookie of the Year. McMurray beat Greg Biffle by 33 points.

NASCAR pulled out all the stops to bid adieu to RJR and its Winston brand as title sponsor this weekend. It was appropriate that seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty led the field in front of the pace car, marking the final victory lap tribute.

RJR has been partnering with NASCAR since 1971, when they took over what was then called the Grand National Division. The company teamed with NASCAR to create the Winston Cup series, but the 1998 settlement by the tobacco industry of tobacco lawsuits prevented RJR from marketing and advertising on radio, TV, or to anyone under the age of 18.

After initially extending their contract, at the beginning of 2003 RJR advised NASCAR that they were free to explore a new series sponsor. Nextel, a wireless company based in Reston, Virginia, takes over as title sponsor in 2004, changing the name of the elite stock car series to the Nextel Cup Series.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Johnny Benson , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Richard Petty