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Swapping races likely will cause confusion

Anyone who watched Terry Labonte win the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway last fall probably is a bit confused at hearing Mark Martin is the defending champion of the DieHard 500 that will run here Sunday.

The official explanation may not clear things up much.

Talladega, NASCAR's longest oval at 2.66 miles, is the site of two Winston Cup races each season _ in the spring and fall. Last year the Winston 500 ran in the spring, the DieHard 500 in the fall. But this year the sponsors switched races.

NASCAR records will stay with the race date, not the sponsor name. What used to be Winston 500 records are DieHard 500 records, and vice versa.

The change came about when Winston, the series sponsor, introduced the No Bull 5 program, in which $1-million in bonus money is made available at each of five major races. Winston wanted its namesake No Bull 5 event to come toward the end of the season.

The switch also allows DieHard national television exposure. Talladega's spring race is shown on ABC, the fall race on ESPN.

MOVING ON UP: Two-time Busch Grand National series champion Randy LaJoie is having a good run subbing for injured Winston Cup driver Ricky Craven in the No. 50 Chevrolet.

Fresh off a fifth-place finish in the Goody's 500, LaJoie turned in his best Winston Cup qualifying effort on Friday to earn the 10th starting spot in the DieHard 500.

"The opportunity to drive for Hendrick Motorsports is the opportunity of a lifetime, really," said LaJoie, who has shunned other Winston Cup offers in favor of the Busch series. "I've always said I'm a Saturday guy, but in Winston Cup there's no better than Hendrick Motorsports. If I do come back to Winston Cup it's not going to be with a second-rate team."

ONE MORE TRY: Among those who will attempt to make their way into Sunday's race during today's second-round qualifying are Dennis Setzer and Matt Kenseth. Either would be making his Winston Cup debut. Setzer is running a third team for owner Bill Elliott, Kenseth a sixth entry for owner Jack Roush.

HIGH-STYLE RETURN: Seven drivers among the top 10 turned in season-best qualifying efforts, including seventh-place starter Derrick Cope in the No. 30 Pontiac. Cope returned to the track after sitting out last week with injured ribs.

"It feels good to get back in the car," Cope said. "It's awfully tough to sit back on that couch and watch someone else drive your race car. I was coming back this week you-know-what or high water."

Others who had season-best qualifying runs included Bobby Labonte (pole), Dale Earnhardt (second), Ken Schrader (fourth), Morgan Shepherd (fifth), Cope, Lake Speed (eighth) and LaJoie.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Fifty-one drivers tried to qualify for the DieHard 500, with no more than 43 able to start the race. Martin, winner of last year's spring race at Talladega, was well off the qualifying pace. His fastest lap of 189.740 mph was 44th.

SPEEDWAY TO GROW: Spurred by the growth of NASCAR, Talladega Superspeedway might expand to more than 200,000 seats.

Grant Lynch, president of the sprawling track 40 miles east of Birmingham, said a construction project already under way will add 11,000 seats in the tri-oval area of the 2.66-mile track in time for October's Winston 500.

The tri-oval tower will raise the grandstand capacity to about 120,000 seats. Talladega has built more permanent grandstand seats in nine of the past 10 years, adding 47,000 seats since 1987.

_ JOANNE KORTH, TIMES WIRES

DIEHARD 500

Race facts

Track length: 2.66 miles

Race length: 188 laps, 500 miles

Defending champ: Mark Martin.

Race record: Mark Martin, 188.354, May 10, 1997.

Qualifying record: Bill Elliott, 212.809 mph, April 30, 1987.

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