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In a blink and a nudge, B. Labonte victorious

Most of the time, Winston Cup driver Bobby Labonte is the calm, cool and collected type. Soft-spoken and reserved. Not one to cause a fuss.

Most of the time.

Not all the time.

Aggressive when it counted, Labonte pushed Jeff Gordon out of the way with 11 laps left to win Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"I knew we had a chance to win and you don't get these chances very often," said Labonte, who beat Gordon by 1.274 seconds for his 20th victory. "We had a fast car. I was going to do everything I could."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third as Chevrolets swept the top three.

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Ford, took the Winston Cup points lead for the first time in his four-year career with a fourth-place finish, his third consecutive top five.

"I guess it really doesn't matter this early in the year, but it's better to be ahead than behind," said Kenseth, the only driver with three top fives in four races. "We'll take that and build on what we did. Hopefully, we'll have a good run at Darlington next week."

Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields Chevrolets for Labonte and reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, has won seven of the past 14 races at AMS. Labonte's sixth AMS win broke a tie with Georgian Bill Elliott for most among active drivers.

This was JGR's first victory since switching this season from Pontiac.

"I like this place," said Labonte, who has won five of 12 races since AMS was reconfigured in 1997 and made one of NASCAR's fastest tracks. "We run well here, but I don't know why. It's a combination of things. I love going fast here. The faster you go, the more I like it."

Labonte's No. 18 clearly was the strongest car. He led the most laps, nine times for 172 of 325, and built huge leads on the 1.54-mile oval. He was pulling away for what appeared to be an easy victory when a late caution made things interesting.

Thanks to lengthy green-flag runs early, just 10 cars remained on the lead lap. Everyone came to pit road for fresh tires, and Labonte's crew got him out first, just ahead of Gordon and Kenseth.

But Labonte, slow on many of the day's restarts, stuttered when the race resumed with 13 laps left, allowing Gordon to power past him on the outside through Turns 1 and 2. A lap later, Labonte was on the back bumper of Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet, sure that his car was faster.

Labonte would not be denied.

"You can't just wait," he said. "When I got to him I said, "I've got to take my opportunity right now to make that pass.' "

With momentum coming off of Turn 4, Labonte swung outside coming into the tri-oval. Gordon tried to block the move but Labonte bumped him, causing the four-time Winston Cup champion's car to swerve.

"I actually spun the tires a little bit and got a little sideways," Gordon said. "It allowed him to get a fender to the outside. I tried to squeeze him up high, but I knew it was going to be a wreck if I went any further with it."

Gordon, whose golden-boy image masks his aggressive driving style, said he was not surprised by Labonte's forceful move.

"When Bobby Labonte has a car that's capable of winning he drives it for all it's worth," Gordon said. "I think people think of him as just this calm, conservative guy, but nobody is any hungrier then he is when he's got a shot at winning."

Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champ, struggled the past two seasons, slumping to 16th in points last year. But new crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain, hired for his feisty personality as well as his ability to set up cars, has sparked Labonte.

"He is pretty calm and kind of laid-back," McSwain said. "But it's like the commercial with the little devil sitting on somebody's shoulder. That's me in his ear going, "This is your race if you want it. Don't take nothing off these young kids. Let's go get this race.' When he made that move and came around on the next lap, I said, "Now that's what I call a race car driver.' "

With consecutive top-five finishes, including fourth in Las Vegas, Labonte has climbed 23 places to fifth in the standings the past two weeks. He trails Kenseth by 108 points.

Labonte's confidence is back.

"It does feel good after the past two years of not being very competitive," said Labonte, who won for the first time since Martinsville in April. "We've got a lot of races to go, but it feels good that we've gotten to this point."

Even if he had to get pushy.

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