Labonte Burton Bounce Back

CONCORD, N.C. – With his victory in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night, Jeff Burton matched Bobby Labonte with 16 career wins, but the duo had something else in common.

After miserable starts – by their standards – to the 2001 season, Burton and Labonte both showed they can still drive these race cars, still run up front, still dominate, and in Burton’s case, still win.

And they both showed the resiliency of two terrific race teams.

For Burton, the return to victory lane has come after an arduous season. For Labonte, the return to the front hasn’t been quite as dramatic, but still gratifying. If not for a half-spin while trying to pass Jerry Nadeau on the outside in Turn 2, Labonte may have been doing the celebrating, not Burton.

“It’s a shame for Bobby,” said Joe Gibbs, Labonte’s car owner. “But I told Bobby that sometimes when you don’t win a race, you have the greatest appreciation for somebody. That’s the way I felt (Sunday night) about him. I thought this was one of his greatest efforts.”

Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion who came into the race 357 points behind Dale Jarrett, picked up one spot and 18 points in the standings. A small move forward, sure, but leading four times for 74 laps – the second most behind Burton – did wonders for the team’s confidence.

“I definitely think we were on the right track tonight,” Labonte said. “Right before (the spin), man, we were really good… We lost a little bit on the big part of the pie, but I guess it could have been a lot worse. We didn’t tear anything up and came back to finish fifth, which is good. We can take a positive from this and go on to the next one. It could have been a lot worse.”

The season couldn’t have gotten any worse for Burton. He went from championship favorite to also-ran, and his Roush Racing team is only now digging out from the pile of poor performances.

Burton shouldered much of the blame for the bad start, where he finished in the Top 5 only once before coming to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Worse, he had finished on the lead lap only three times in the first 11 races.

Goodyear’s new, harder tire was the culprit, Burton said, but he pointed the finger at himself. Burton said he simply hasn’t been able to get a handle on the new tire.

“When a race team is working and they’re winning races, the reason why is – obviously, they’ve got good engines, they’ve got good chassis, they’ve got good shocks, they’ve got good springs, they’ve got good pit stops – when the driver drives down in the corner he feels something,” Burton said. “Whether it’s pushing or loose or the left front’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, whatever it is, he’s feeling something. That feeling goes through his butt and to his head and says, ‘We need to do this better. This is where we aren’t running well and this is why we aren’t running well.’ If you ever lose that, you cannot be successful - not in this type of racing.

“Frank (Stoddard) is one of the best crew chiefs in the business. He can’t make a call on the car if I come in the garage and he says, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I give him a deer-in-the-headlight look. He can’t do it… You have to have that feel.”

Qualifying has traditionally been a problem for Burton’s team, and this year is no different. What is different is Burton has rarely moved through the field as he did in years past.

There have been two low points, Burton said. One was Las Vegas, where Burton “had his head up his ass and he spun the car and got it in the wall for no reason on the second lap of the race.”

The second was California, where he started 21st and finished 31st, one lap down. What was worse was the team had a “great test” there, but when they came back, nothing worked.

“I looked in my mirror at one point, and there were two cars behind me on the race track,” Burton said. “I went back and looked at our times to make sure we weren’t crazy. We had a great test at California. The times that we ran at California were awesome. I’m telling you, we had a great test. We went back with the same car, the same everything and we couldn’t run a lick.

“That was discouraging because I really believed going to California that we had found something and we were on the verge of being what it is that Roush Racing is all about. (But) there was a terrible, terrible finish.”

Even through the troubles, Burton and the team haven’t gotten down on one another. Like all great teams, they’ve simply kept working, trying to figure out how to get better at each track.

“We’ve been far off,” Burton said. “What we haven’t been far off on is effort. There have been four races this year that we ran worse than we ever had before, since I’ve been here and Frank’s been here, and that baffled us. We left those races not even knowing why we ran that bad, and that’s a bad sign.

“What I kept saying was that everybody was still working and everybody was still fighting. You find out who is made of what when things aren’t going well… Our guys never quit.”

And Burton insisted they’re not going to stop working hard even though they won Sunday night.

“This doesn’t mean that with all the hard work that now we can go home and rest,” Burton said. “What this means is that (Sunday) we got it done. There are still some struggles ahead for us. We’re still going to Dover with a tire that we didn’t run there last year. We have a lot to learn between now and the time we come back from Dover and it’s the same way for the next race and the next race.

“We still have some tough times ahead of us. This doesn’t mean that everything is great and everything is lovely. We’ve got to keep fighting and keep working and when things don’t go well, go analyze it and figure out how to make it better.”

That’s what good teams do, and Burton’s and Labonte’s proved it Sunday night.

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