Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Favorite Shows Vulnerability in Preliminaries

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Favorite Shows Vulnerability in Preliminaries

Article excerpt

DAYTONA BEACH -- Bobby Labonte gave the stock answer when asked who is the driver to beat in the 41st Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon is the favorite here, there and everywhere.

But when asked why Gordon should automatically be accorded that status in today's showcase event, Labonte said.

"Well, if I had won the championship and 13 races last year, everybody would say I'm the guy to beat," Labonte said. "He did that, so he's the guy to beat."

Gordon won his third championship and a record-tying 13 points races in 1998, including the Pepsi 400 here in October. And he won the Daytona 500 pole position eight days ago.

But he hasn't exactly been dominant since then.

He lost the special-event Bud Shootout Sunday after overrunning his pit during a mandatory stop.

And then he was passed for the victory by Labonte in Thursday's Twin 125-mile qualifying races.

Mark Martin won the Shootout, and Labonte and Dale Earnhardt won the Twins. Counting Friday's IROC race won by Earnhardt, Gordon is 0 for 3 in Speedweeks.

Gordon still presents the best combination of driver, car and crew. But there are others today who appear to have the car, the momentum or simply the law of averages in their favor.

Martin has never won the Daytona 500 in a brilliant career, and he wants it so badly the trophy practically reflects in his eyes. Earnhardt, a proud seven-time champion and last year's winner, is acting and racing as if he shed five years during the offseason.

And Earnhardt, 47, who has won only three points races in the last three years, is Daytona's all-time leading winner with 33 victories in a variety of events.

"Wonder Boy don't bother me none here," Earnhardt said under his breath after winning Thursday. The quip was both a dig at Gordon, who hates the nickname that was pinned on him as a rookie in 1993, and a reflection of Earnhardt's confidence.

Then there's Labonte, whose Twin 125 win in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac came after runner-up finishes in both of last year's points races here.

"The problem with this thing is one bad pit stop, one loose lug nut, one mess-up in the draft and you're out," Gibbs said. …

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