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Labonte smoothly wins Slick 50 500

Terry Labonte, dominating in the desert sun, raced away Sunday with the Slick 50 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The 1984 Winston Cup champion led 112 of the final 120 laps on the 1-mile oval in capturing his third victory of the season, a career best.

It wasn't much of a contest after the halfway point of the 312-lap race. Most of the leaders fell back into the pack and Labonte put all but two drivers _ runner-up Mark Martin and pole-starter Sterling Marlin _ a lap down.

Labonte's Hendrick Motorsports crew gave him a killer 17.9-second, green-flag pit stop on lap 283 that helped him drive his Chevrolet Lumina across the finish line 3.09 seconds _ half a straightaway _ ahead of Martin's Ford Thunderbird.

"We knew we had to beat Mark and we knew he got four tires, so we had to do the same thing to stay even with him," Labonte said. "It was a great stop."

After that, it was just a matter of Labonte staying out of trouble.

"The only worry I had was Mark," Labonte said of the defending race winner. "He was always there and I figured if I got held up in traffic, he'd get around me. But everything went just right for us. This is the best car I've had here since 1989."

It was Labonte's best finish at Phoenix since he finished second in 1988 and 1989 _ the first two Winston Cup races at the track. He is also the sixth different winner in those seven years.

Labonte, in his first year driving for Rick Hendrick, had gone four seasons without a victory. The 37-year-old driver has 13 career wins. The winner won $67,885 as he averaged a race record 107.463 mph, breaking the mark of 105.683 set by Bill Elliott in 1989.

This was the third straight Chevrolet victory and fourth in the past six races after Ford, which won the 1994 NASCAR Manufacturers' Championship, had control most of the season.

Jeff Gordon wound up a lap down in fourth, followed by Ted Musgrave, Kyle Petty and Ricky Rudd, who faded after leading most of the first 100 laps of the race.

Dale Earnhardt, who clinched his record-tying seventh Winston Cup championship a week earlier with a victory at Rockingham, N.C., was the fourth driver eliminated from Sunday's race. A blown head gasket ended Earnhardt's streak of seventh-place-or-better finishes at eight races.

"We were running some experimental stuff," Earnhardt said. "We went out on a limb a little too far, and the limb broke. We cracked a cylinder head.

"You don't want to experiment like that when you're running for the championship, so this was the time to do it. The engine had a lot of power, but it cracked a head and started spitting some water out. We were out there throwing water out everywhere, and that was just going to mess somebody up."

The race was slowed by a 26-minute red flag after John Andretti slid through the oil from Rick Mast's blown engine and punched a hole in the third-turn wall on lap 32.

Track workers had to cover the 3-square-foot hole with steel boilerplate. Andretti was taken to a hospital for observation and later released.

There were 12 lead changes among eight drivers and just four caution flags for 29 laps, both race records. The final 188 laps were run under the green flag.

Track officials said the crowd totaled 96,000, up from the previous record of 87,000, set a year ago.

Bernstein tops NHRA winners

POMONA, Calif. _ Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Darrell Alderman and John Myers won titles at the NHRA Winston Select Finals.

Bernstein won in top fuel, Force in Funny Car, Alderman in Pro Stock and Myers in Pro Stock Motorcycle in the final NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event of the season.

Bernstein, of Dallas, defeated Cory McClenathan in the Top Fuel final. Bernstein produced an elapsed time of 4.720 seconds and an NHRA-record speed pf 314.46 mph. McClenathan finished at 4.798, 297.42.

Force earned his 10th victory of the season by beating Cruz Pedregon.