NASCAR Flashback: 2001 Pennsylvania 500, Labonte Versus Jr.

By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into Pocono Raceway for the 66th race at the storied triangular race track. This week the feature of ‘NASCAR Flashback’ is the 2001 running of the Pennsylvania 500.

It was an overcast day in Long Pond, Pennsylvania and everyone was hoping to just get a full race in. However in the end weather wouldn’t even be a factor.

Todd Bodine started the day from the pole in his No. 66 Kmart Ford, but after leading the first two laps Bodine would be shuffled to the back. He would eventually fall out of the race on lap 128 with handling issues and would finish last on the day.

Jeff Gordon, who was looking to capture the points lead with a good run dominated on the day. By lap 115, Gordon had already paced the field for 90 laps, and it appeared that he wouldn’t be denied on this day.

However it wouldn’t be that easy, as things would begin to get crazy on the track.

On lap 151 there was a huge pileup that took out Dale Jarrett, Kevin Lepage, Ward Burton and Jeff Burton. The melee was triggered when Ward Burton checked up for Stacy Compton getting loose, and his brother Jeff tagged him. According to Jeff Burton the incident was all his fault.

“Ward Checked up, and I didn’t get checked up. So I ran into the back of Ward and started it.” Jeff Burton said.

All of the leaders would stay out under this caution, but just laps later the caution would come out yet again with Gordon still leading as debris would fall from Dale Jarrett’s car.

Under this caution, a bit of strategy would take over that would shuffle Gordon way back in the pack to 21st.

Just about the entire field opted for two tires or fuel only while Jeff Gordon had already made the decision to take four tires. Johnny Benson stayed on the racetrack to gamble on fuel mileage. Benson’s gamble was quite the gamble, as people who pitted under this caution weren’t even guaranteed to make it to the finish on fuel.

We would go back to green with Johnny Benson as the leader. It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. a few laps to cut his way from third place on the restart to the lead, but the reason was strategic. Earnhardt decided to draft behind Benson for a few laps to help him save fuel to get him to the finish.

Earnhardt of course had lost his father on the final lap of the Daytona 500, and was just weeks removed from his dramatic victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. So the sentimental favorite held the top spot with just 31 laps remaining.

Earnhardt was actually beginning to build a little bit of a lead on Benson. When all of a sudden with 30 laps to go the caution would come out one last time, when Kurt Busch’s tire flew off of his car. This tightened the field back up, for one final shootout.

Earnhardt would maintain the lead on the restart, and would look to have an easy path to victory, until a new challenger emerged.

The new challenger was the 2000 champion Bobby Labonte. With 27 laps to go Labonte blew by his teammate Tony Stewart for third, and he would do the same to Johnny Benson with 21 laps to go. Labonte now sat in second-place, and was now the fastest car on the track, but he had a 2.4 second deficit to Earnhardt to overcome.

Lap-by-lap Labonte was chipping away at the lead as Earnhardt Jr. had began to start backing down his pace to save fuel. With eight laps to go the lead was cut down to just over a second, and then with four laps to go Labonte was right on Earnhardt’s bumper.

At this point Earnhardt decided to throw fuel mileage away, and the race was on.

For two laps Labonte raced Earnhardt hard, trying to force him into a mistake. However coming off of turn heading to the start finish line with two to go Labonte finally got around Earnhardt for the lead, but Earnhardt wouldn’t concede.

Earnhardt would give his car all it had into turn one, and actually fought his way back in front of the No. 18 car of Labonte. The two made contact and Earnhardt began to block for his life.

Labonte would pass Earnhardt for the final time the next turn, and would go on to his third career Pocono victory, and first victory of the 2001 season.

An ecstatic Labonte credited having a good long-run car for his win in victory lane.

“I tell you what man, It was uh, Good god it was tough there at the end. Our car was great all day on the long-runs.” Labonte said.

He continued by saying that sometimes you feel bad beating the better car for the win.

“Out running Jr. there at the end, you don’t want to beat some people sometimes when they have a good car, and he had a great car.” Labonte said.

Earnhardt made it to the line on gas and finished second. Following the race Earnhardt remained upbeat by saying that earlier in the race he would have loved to of just been third. He did mention that he thought he could hold Labonte off for the win.

“Well I thought we could hold him off there.” Earnhardt said. “I tried to block him, but he wouldn’t let me.”

Tony Stewart finished third, Bill Elliott was fourth, and Johnny Benson somehow made his fuel last for fifth-place.

Jeff Gordon would rebound to finish eighth after dominating by leading 121 of the 200 laps on the day, and would take the loss in stride.

“It’s disappointing because we had a good car, but it show how competitive this sport is.” Gordon said.

Gordon dominated, but in the end Earnhardt and Labonte stole the show.

Author: Toby Christie

Toby is the Editor of TheFinalLap.com and Social Media Director of all things @TheFinalLap. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly radio show and podcast, and he is the writer and co-host of the Racing Legends podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.

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