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Labonte climb is one notch away

Talladega Superspeedway may be the longest track on the Winston Cup circuit, but the distance between Bobby Labonte and Victory Lane seems to be shrinking.

Steadily.

He finished third here last spring, second in the fall and is well on his way to the logical next step after winning the pole position for Sunday's DieHard 500.

Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac Grand Prix turned a fast lap of 195.728 mph over Talladega's 2.66-mile high-banked oval, bumping Dale Earnhardt to the outside pole by 0.134 seconds.

"It's the guys who work on the car, especially at this track, who get it going for qualifying," said Labonte, the first repeat pole winner of the 1998 season. "Our guys did a great job."

Labonte also won the pole at the season-opening Daytona 500, where he again finished second. Daytona and Talladega are the only tracks on the Winston Cup circuit where carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep speeds slower than 200 mph.

"I think these races are really difficult to win," Labonte said. "Daytona is awfully difficult. Talladega is awfully difficult. Hopefully, we can run all day, run competitive and run up front. We'd like to come out of here with a good finish and possibly a win, if we can."

Of course, winning the pole at Talladega doesn't generally translate into success on Sunday.

Only 11 of 57 events at NASCAR's fastest track have been won from the pole, with Bill Elliott the last to do it in the spring race of 1985.

"It's a good place to start anywhere you go," said Labonte, whose 12th career pole was his first at Talladega. "Here is no different than anywhere else; anything can happen. But there might be less chance of anything happening to you when you're up front."

Labonte's manufacturer could turn out to be a detriment as well, considering Oldsmobile, a General Motors make no longer active in Winston Cup racing, has more Talladega victories in the 1990s than Pontiac.

The only time a Pontiac has won at Talladega was in 1983 with Richard Petty behind the wheel.

"I didn't know that," Labonte said. "I hope with finishing second here last time and second at Daytona that we can get around that last number to get to first. That would be nice to do for Pontiac and for our race team."

Earnhardt claimed the outside pole with a fast lap of 195.194 mph, continuing his streak of impressive performances at Daytona and Talladega since restrictor plates were introduced in 1987.

Earnhardt's eight restrictor-plate victories in 41 starts lead all drivers. Thanks to Labonte, Earnhardt remains tied with Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin for the most poles (six) in plate races.

But Earnhardt won't gripe. The outside pole marks the first time Earnhardt has qualified among the top 25 since starting fourth for the season-opening Daytona 500, which he won.

"I didn't think we could run that fast; that was pretty fast lap," said Earnhardt, driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. "It sure feels good to be competitive for (the pole). That was as fast as we'd run since we got here."

Were it not for Earnhardt, the front row would have been a repeat of the Daytona 500 _ a Labonte family affair. Terry Labonte's No. 5 Chevrolet will start third after a lap of 194.452 mph.

Ken Schrader in the No. 33 Chevy and Morgan Shepherd, subbing for injured Mike Skinner in the No. 31 Chevy, rounded out the top five.

Defending series champion Jeff Gordon was sixth, followed by Derrike Cope, Lake Speed, Dale Jarrett and Randy LaJoie.

Series points leader Rusty Wallace qualified 23rd, more than 4 mph slower than Labonte's pole-winning speed.

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