Labonte Bouncing Back

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The crowning moment of Bobby Labonte’s championship season came when he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even though Labonte was the points leader heading to Indy, many wondered whether he had the stuff to win the title.

Labonte quieted those critics, passing Rusty Wallace and pulling away to victory on America’s greatest race course.

A year later, the critics are back.

What’s happened to Labonte? Was the 2000 season a fluke? Why can’t he win?

Of course, Labonte can win. He proved it last week at Pocono Raceway, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go to win the Pennsylvania 500.

Labonte couldn’t have picked a better time to fight his way out of a slump. Many consider the Brickyard 400 the second-biggest race on the Winston Cup schedule, so going to Indy with momentum is a positive step.

And going to Indy off a victory is a huge boost – especially for Labonte’s team. Of course, any kind of momentum would be a boost for Labonte’s team.

Early this season, Labonte had performed a disappearing act of which even Harry Houdini would have been proud. After seven races of 2001, he was 25th in the Winston Cup points standings. His Joe Gibbs Racing team was in a full-fledged slump, riding a 0-for streak any major-league baseball player would dread.

Even at Pocono on Saturday, when Labonte was running well in practice, there were doubts.

“I told (crew chief) Jimmy (Makar), ‘I see light at the end of the tunnel,’ ” Labonte said. “We’ll just find out if it’s a train or not.”

It wasn’t a train, of course, but that’s how much the team’s confidence had eroded. Labonte’s championship defense began poorly, crashing and finishing 40th at Daytona. A brief respite came at Rockingham, where Labonte ran well and nearly beat Steve Park, only to end up second.

Turns out that was the exception, not the rule. The struggles returned, thanks to Goodyear’s harder tire. And even if Labonte ran well, engine problems cropped up.

“We had a series of things that you can’t control, a couple of engine failures and things like that,” Labonte said. “It’s kind of tough when last year you didn’t have any (engine problems). We’d still go to the race track and not be as competitive as we’d like to be.

“I finally had to tell myself, ‘You know, maybe you’re not going to be competitive. Maybe you need to realize it. Don’t think it’s going to come naturally or all of a sudden it’s going fall in our lap.’ I had to tell myself I’m not going to run good again. That’s how good we ran before.

“After winning last year, we thought we’d come off the season and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pick up where we left off. We got thrown a couple curves with the tires, some DNFs. Then, you’re down in points and people are questioning your ability or questioning that you’re not performing as good.”

And you begin questioning yourself.

“You sit there and stay awake at night, thinking, ‘How am I going to make this better?’ ” Labonte said.

And sometimes you think too much. Instead of focusing on specifics, you wonder if your entire program is messed up.

“You don’t want to panic and start changing things just for the sake of changing,” Makar said. “But you have to stop and wonder what’s changed to keep you from winning races and address those specific issues.”

Easier said than done, of course. But through hard work, some on-track testing, Makar and Labonte slowly turned things around.

“Even we’re doing that, it’s very, very easy to start blaming this or that or the other,” Makar said. “You’ve got to be very careful not to do that. That’s where you’ll tear your team apart if you don’t stay focused on the issues that are really keeping you from winning races.”

Makar admitted the team sometimes “wandered off” its baseline setup, but they realized their mistake.

“Adversity usually brings out the character in people,” Makar said. “These guys on the Interstate Batteries team and Bobby himself never gave up. We’ve dug and clawed and worked hard, had long conversations, changed things – it’s not like we’ve just been sitting around waiting for it to happen.

“To finally see the results, it’s a very good feeling knowing that we haven’t forgotten how to win and that we know how to come back from adversity and be able to win a race after we’ve been down and out. Relief, yes, but we feel like we’re back, and we can go race now and feel like we can be competitive weekly.”

And maybe, just maybe, Labonte can creep back into the points race. Sure, he’s seven positions and 409 points behind Jeff Gordon, but Labonte isn’t giving up.

“There’s a lot of racing to go, and anything can happen,” Labonte said. “Obviously there’s not much that’s going to happen bad to Jeff, Ricky (Rudd) or Dale (Jarrett), but last year leading the points for most of the season, everybody asked us about leading the points then. We’d say if you just run good week in and week out, and you finished good and have top fives and don’t have any DNFs, then you look at the points sheet at the end of the day and find out you’re still there.

“So I’m not really going to think about it a whole lot. Anything can happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Don’t count Labonte out. Not this week at Indianapolis. Not the next week at Watkins Glen. You don’t win Winston Cup championship without stringing together good races, so maybe his team is ready to roll.

Now is a perfect time.

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