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Labonte races to a win

HAMPTON, Ga. — New car, new crew chief and, finally, a familiar result for Bobby Labonte.

Driving a Chevrolet for the first time at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and with Michael "Fatback" McSwain standing on the tool box, Labonte bumped his way past Jeff Gordon with 11 laps left to win the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 on Sunday.

It was Labonte's sixth victory in his last 14 starts at Atlanta — the seventh overall for Joe Gibbs Racing — and came after his worst season since joining the team in 1995.

"We know this isn't going to happen all the time, but I'm sure glad it happened this soon in the year," Labonte said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. trailed the top two across the line, with Matt Kenseth and defending race champ Tony Stewart rounding out the top five.

Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champion, had only one victory last year and finished 16th in the standings, all while teammate Stewart was winning the title.

This season, the team ditched Pontiac and went with Chevrolet. McSwain, a burly man who's rarely without a dip of chewing tobacco under his bottom lip, took over for Jimmy Makar, who was promoted to general manager.

The new combination jelled last week at Las Vegas, with Labonte winning the pole and finishing fourth. He dominated Sunday's race after starting fourth and led nine times for 172 laps.

"He is pretty calm and he is pretty conservative and kind of laid back," McSwain said. "I think most of you have seen the commercial with the little devil sitting on somebody's shoulder. Well, that's me in his ear going, 'This is your race if you want it. Don't take nothing off these young kids.' "

With 44 laps left, Labonte easily passed Gordon for the lead and was pulling away when two late cautions bunched the field. Gordon snookered Labonte a bit on the final restart with 11 to go, pulling his Chevrolet to the outside of Labonte's as the pair raced under the green flag.

Gordon, who started 30th, completed the pass in Turn 2, with Labonte right on his bumper.

"He got by me," Labonte said. "He was always getting me on a restart."

They stayed that way for a lap, until Labonte got the momentum needed to attempt an outside pass on the frontstretch. Gordon moved his car up the track to block, and when Labonte didn't back off, the two cars touched briefly.

"I tapped him just a little bit and I eased up. But, I didn't ease up much," Labonte said. "We both kind of wiggled."

Gordon eventually relented and pulled down, allowing Labonte to drive by into the lead. The official margin of victory was 1.274 seconds, nearly half a straightaway.

"I thought it was a great move," Gordon said of the decisive pass. "I figure if they make it and they win the race, then it must be pretty darn good.

"He didn't do anything I wouldn't have done, that's for sure."

Earnhardt, trying to rebound from troubles in the first two races, rallied from 37th on the starting grid for his second straight top five. He was second a week ago in Las Vegas.

"I felt like we had a good shot at a top five if we just kept our nose clean, so that is what I concentrated on," Earnhardt said. "At four races into the season, if there is a person that's on track at this point, they're a pretty damn good team.

"But I feel like these are the finishes we need. It sure helps us in the points and gets a lot of people off my back, I'll tell you that."

Elliott Sadler finished sixth, followed by Jimmy Spencer, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek, the last driver on the lead lap. Ryan Newman was 10th, one lap down.

Kenseth took over the point lead from Michael Waltrip. Kenseth leads Stewart by 49 points, with Waltrip 75 back.