New Rules Same Ruler

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They say this weekend is really the last hope for anybody to mount a serious challenge against Winston Cup Series points leader Bobby Labonte.

Known as a track where anything can happen, and usually does, Talladega would indeed seem to present the last obstacle for Labonte to clear.

Labonte’s first step in getting through this weekend came Friday when he ran sixth in first-round qualifying for the Winston 500. But even had he had a poor qualifying effort, that probably wouldn’t matter a great deal. The draft is known as an equalizer that basically creates a 43-car freight train at nearly 200 mph.

At Talladega, Labonte knows the slightest mistake by another driver can spell disaster. Disaster is a word he needs to stay clear of in the remaining five races.

If he needs a reminder of how bad Talladega can be, all he has to do is look back at his 21st-place finish there earlier this year -- as a result of a mistake on another driver’s part. It was his second-worse finish of the 2000 season.

Even though Labonte’s No. 18 Pontiac has historically been one of the cars to beat at Talladega and Daytona, he is not a big fan of bunched-up restrictor-plate racing.

So even though he won the 1998 DieHard 500 at Talladega from the pole, Labonte says a new NASCAR rules package has him a little in the dark.

"It's all different now, so we're not sure," Labonte says of his confidence level entering the event with a 252-point lead over second-place Jeff Burton. "I hope that we're confident enough to run just as good as we have in the other plate races. But by the same token, it's a whole new set of rules now. Hopefully we'll be able to learn some of the things rather quickly and have a good run."

The unknown entering Sunday’s race is with newly-mandated NASCAR rules. The rules were put in place to enhance what has been poor racing at Talladega and Daytona in three races at the two tracks this year.

The changes NASCAR has made include a larger restrictor plate, a one-inch plate that will add about 75 horsepower to the cars.

To offset the added horsepower, NASCAR has ordered an aerodynamic change. The real spoiler on all cars are to be set at no less than 70 degrees, a 45-degree increase from the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July.

At the top of the rear spoiler, all teams will now have a one-inch forward-facing flange. Teams also add an extra half-inch of ground clearance, and each car will be equipped with a 40-inch-wide air deflector on the roof that is just more than an inch high.

Like they do most of the time, Labonte and crew chief Jimmy Makar are hoping the changes will play into their favor. Considering a recent test of the new rules at Daytona, Labonte says the racing will be much improved.

"We were able to go down and do the NASCAR test in Daytona. You could see a big difference in pulling up to the draft, but it's still a little tough to pass," Labonte said. "It's going to be a lot of the same type of racing, and it will be a little bit different in some ways, too.

"With 43 cars out there, it's going to be different than with 19 cars out there in practice like we did down at Daytona. There are going to be a lot of people trying to feel out what is going on and figuring out what they've got to do, and how to pass, and what the new rules are going to do to their cars.

"Everybody is going to be feeling it out a lot Saturday morning and seeing how it goes. Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon it'll be a lot of people trying to figure out what works with what and who works better with whom. It's the same thing. It's just trying to re-learn some new areas that maybe we haven't been able to do in a while."

While he also doesn’t know what will come of the weekend, admitting he’s in the learning mode right now, Makar says the teams that have been doing well so far this season shouldn’t miss a beat.

"When you get new rules like this, it reminds me of our Loudon issue - going there with a restrictor plate," Makar said. "The good race teams know how to react to change. That's true in any professional sport. The teams that rise to the top are the ones that go home and work on the change, on what has to happen for them to be good.

"Then there is going to be a group that goes home and they complain about it a little bit, and they don’t work really hard at it. They might just get by.

"When these rules came about, we started working on what we needed to work on to make our cars right, and we're looking forward to Talladega. It's going to be different. There are going to be some people that are going to be good and there are some people that are going to miss it big time, and it will be a little controversial. But we feel like we're ready for the race. We've done everything we can to be competitive."

With so many unknowns coming into the race, will Labonte try and change the way he usually approaches an event at the 2.66-mile Alabama track?

"Our philosophy is that we start the weekend off zero-zero. We've got zero points - everybody's got zero points," Labonte said. "At the end of the day, we try to get the most points… that's our philosophy. If you do that, the points will take care of themselves.

"You have to run well, you have to be consistent, you have to win races, you have to lead laps, you have to do everything. We do everything in our power to run the best we can every weekend. We're not going to hit it every weekend, but on the days that we can, that's what got us to this point. We can't change our thought process now."

Labonte’s thought process and his hold on the Winston Cup title might be about the only things not changing this weekend.

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