June 22, 2004 at 10:03 PM EST - Updated June 28 at 7:40 AM
BROOKLYN, Mich. - What's this? Bobby Labonte appeared to pull off two magic acts Sunday. After running much of the second half of Sunday's DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway outside the top 10 - and even the top 20 at one point - he came away with an eighth-place finish in the final rundown.
The result should not surprise - Labonte has 15 top 10s in 24 starts at Michigan - but the come-from-nowhere manner of Sunday's finish and its payoff shocked even some on Labonte's team. Not only did he salvage a top 10 in a race that could have been a big disappointment, Labonte also gained two spots in the points. He is fourth - the highest ranked driver without a victory this season - and trails third-place Matt Kenseth by 86.
Quite suddenly, Labonte, a driver known for his quiet demeanor, appears to have been fired out of a cannon and into the Nextel Cup championship picture. "We had a good ending to a tough day," Labonte said Sunday. "We started out pretty good, but I just got really, really loose in the middle part of the race. I even brushed the wall at one point. "We made a lot of adjustments on the car and during the final 30 to 40 laps we were still loose, but drivable loose and that let us get in the top-10."
Although without a victory in 2004, Labonte has challenged for wins several times. He has two second-place finishes - at Darlington, S.C., and Martinsville, Va., - and two thirds, at Richmond, Va., and last weekend at Pocono. He has climbed from 15th to fourth in points over the past nine races. "Fourth in points is good for us," he said. "We're still looking for that first win, but we're happy to get out of here with what we got today (Sunday)."