Bobby Labonte was 18 years old when he first raced at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was a Daytona Dash race ¿ now called Goody¿s Dash Series ¿ on the 1.5-mile oval that was then called Atlanta International Raceway.
Everything about the track in those days was different ¿ the name, the track layout, the start/finish line, the grandstands, the garages, the press box, Victory Lane.
About the only thing that hasn¿t changed in the 21 years since is Labonte¿s love for Atlanta.
"I hadn¿t run anything over a half-mile track before and had probably only run five races in my life, and we came down here that day and ran third," Labonte said. "That was an exciting day, to come here and run third my first time here."
Things have just gotten better for Labonte through the years. He now leads all active drivers in wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway with six (Georgia native Bill Elliott has five, plus one non-points race win). He¿ll be looking for No. 7 when the NASCAR Winston Cup drivers return to Atlanta this weekend for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.
"I hope I get another boat ¿ a big fish and a boat," said Labonte, who received both a hulking largemouth bass trophy and a Tracker boat for winning the spring Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. "Last weekend was disappointing for us, but (Jeff) Gordon won. He¿s only won two races this year, both of them at one track, so I figure I can win two races at one track too."
Why not? Labonte has won six of the last 14 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, beginning with the fall 1996 race. In fact, Labonte, has finished in either first or second in nine of his 21 races at Atlanta ¿ an amazing statistic for any driver at any track.
"This track has a lot of character in it," Labonte said. "On the back straight, the wall is not quite straight and comes up on you fast, and the corners are banked and the track gives up some grip on the bottom as the day goes on. There are a lot of little things that add a lot of character to this race track that I like. It¿s always exciting to race here."
And Labonte has seen his share of excitement close-up. In the spring of 2000, Labonte was involved in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history at Atlanta, this time on the losing end, as Dale Earnhardt edged him by .010 seconds.
Just what does he remember about that race?
"Losing," Labonte said with a grin. "I¿d like to have won, but it was exciting when we crossed the start/finish line. We lost by inches, but I was down in turn 1 before we really knew what happened. It¿s hard to imagine running 500 miles around here, high or in the middle or low whatever, and it comes down to two feet or three inches. But it can."
Don¿t miss your chance to see Labonte and the rest of the NASCAR Winston Cup stars in what could be the next photo finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Great seats are still available for the entire Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 weekend starting at $69 for a three-day package. Call the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at (770) 946-4211, or visit your local Ticketmaster, for more information.