Bobby Labonte once again mastered Atlanta Motor Speedway, fighting off a late challenge from Jeff Gordon to win yesterday's MBNA 500 in Hampton, Ga.
Labonte dominated at times during the 325-lap event and appeared to have things under control after passing Gordon for the lead with 44 laps left.
But Jeff Burton brought out a caution flag on Lap 308 when his engine blew and he scraped the fourth-turn wall.
That gave Gordon a shot at Labonte on the restart on Lap 313, and he took advantage. Gordon pushed the nose of his No. 24 Chevrolet under Labonte's No. 18 Chevy and finally nosed in front on the backstretch.
Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champion, stayed with Gordon, got right on his rear bumper and made him wiggle in the fourth turn. Labonte then shoved his way alongside as the two got to the flagstand, then zoomed into the lead as the leaders drove into turn one on the 11/2-mile quad-oval.
Moments later, Labonte began pulling away from Gordon, driving off to a 20 car-length lead over the next few laps and winning by 1.274 seconds -- half a straightaway. There were 23 lead changes, but Labonte led a race-high 172 laps.
Gordon "just kept us honest," Labonte said. "That guy was just so fast. The restarts were terrible, but the car was good."
It was Labonte's sixth victory here in the last 12 races, though first since November 2001. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, won this race last year.
Gordon, who started 30th in the 43-car field, did not appear too be disappointed by his runner-up finish. He started the season without a top-10 placing in the first three races for the first time in his career.
Labonte "had the best car all day," Gordon said. "He was just so strong. I learned some things from him today."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from 37th place to finish third, giving Chevrolet a sweep of the top three.
* FORMULA ONE: The circuit opened a new season under new rules, producing a striking result: Michael Schumacher failed to finish among the top three.
In a sport ruled by the German driver and his Ferrari team, the Australian Grand Prix was won by David Coulthard yesterday (Saturday night EST). It marked the first time in 20 races Schumacher was not on the podium.
"It's natural that one day it will change," said Schumacher, who led early but finished fourth. "In sport that's the way it goes."
In an effort to slow Ferrari's dominance and boost slumping TV ratings, F1 introduced a host of rule changes this season. Among them are one-car-at-a-time qualifying sessions over two days and other regulations governing fuel, car setup and points distribution based on race finishes.