Throughout most of the 1997 season, Jeff Gordon has done most everything right and Terry Labonte has been frustrated by a series of on-track troubles.
That changed dramatically in Sunday's DieHard 500 at Talladega, Ala., with Gordon's cut tire igniting a 21-car crash that helped Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion, to his first victory in more than a year."Thank goodness," Labonte said of the win at Talladega Superspeedway. "I didn't want to be the defending champion and go all season without winning a race.
"Our main goal at the end of the season was to get the team back on track, with some momentum going into next season. This sure helped."
For Gordon, it was a particularly frustrating afternoon as he lost ground to both Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, his closest pursuers in the championship chase.
Now, with three races remaining, Gordon's lead over Martin has shrunk to 110 points, with Jarrett 155 behind.
"This is exactly what we didn't need today," Gordon said. "You've got to have all four tires on these things."
On lap 140 of the 188-lap event, Gordon was near the front in a pace of 32 cars traveling at more than 190 mph on the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval when his left rear tire suddenly deflated.
"I tried to gather it up, but I knew right away something was wrong with the left rear," the 26-year-old racer explained. "That's the last thing you want to have happen to you in the middle of a pack like that."
The only thing worse is to be behind somebody when it does.
Before the melee on the long, fast back straightaway was over, half the 42-car field became involved, including Martin and Jar-rett.
All three of the top contenders did manage to get back into the race, but only enough to gain a few more points. Jarrett, who had the least damage, wound up 21st, Martin 30th and Gordon, who got back into the action on the leader's 171st lap, was 35th.
"I knew it was going to happen sooner or later," Martin said. "I was just driving a conservative race and waiting for them to wreck up front. We were just unlucky to get caught up in it."
Among the others knocked out of contention in the big crash were Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt, Joe Nemechek, Jimmy Spencer, Michael Waltrip, Dick Trickle, Mike Skinner and Greg Sacks.
Labonte missed all the action because he was leading the race when it happened.
Las Vegas 500K
Eliseo Salazar won the Las Vegas 500K Saturday for his first Indy-car victory, while Tony Stewart captured the Indy Racing League season championship.
Salazar took the lead with 48 laps to go and won by 1.2 seconds over Scott Goodyear in the final IRL race of the season.
Stewart finished 11th to wrap up the IRL title by six points over Davey Hamilton, who finished seventh.
Robbie Buhl was third and Jim Guthrie fourth.
Japanese Grand Prix
At Suzuka, Japan, two-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher dominated Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix with his Ferrari to move within a point of leader Jacques Villeneuve with one race remaining.
Villeneuve has to await a ruling by Formula One officials over a yellow-flag violation in Saturday's practice.
Villeneuve's fifth-place finish was worth two points, just enough to keep him ahead of Schumacher, 79-78. Schumacher got 10 points for the 27th victory of his career, matching the total of three-time champion Jackie Stewart.
Schumacher completed 53 laps over the 3.636-mile Suzuka circuit in 1 hour, 29 minutes, 48.466 seconds.
Eddie Irvine placed third, 26.384 seconds behind the winner. Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen was second, 1.378 seconds behind Schumacher, giving Williams-Renault a record-breaking ninth season title in the constructors' category.