Labonte Is Back On Track

JOLIET, Ill. - All is finally right with the world. Bobby Labonte is once again finishing races consistently in the Top 10, and he’s once again solidly entrenched in the Top 10 in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series points standings.

The one thing most likely you won’t see, however, is Labonte successfully defending his Winston Cup championship. A poor start to the 2001 season pretty much took care of that a few months back.

Labonte’s mission now: To finish as high in the points as he can and build toward another championship campaign in 2002.

With three consecutive top-10 finishes and four in the past six races, Labonte has made his way to seventh place in the standings, 342 behind leader Jeff Grodon. He’s 123 points behind fifth-place Rusty Wallace heading into Sunday’s inaugural Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“For what we went through during the early part of the season, we’re in pretty good shape,” the driver of the No. 18 Pontiac said. “Knowing we’re just now starting off the second half of the season and we had a good run last Saturday night at Daytona (he finished fifth) and gained something points-wise, I can’t really complain.

“Things like that (the slow start this season) are going to happen. The year didn’t start off the way we wanted. We definitely had higher hopes, but things like that happen. That’s part of racing. If we’re able to battle back to a good finish here, then that’s good. Week-in and week-out we’ve got to finish in the Top 5 and Top 10 to accomplish that. That’s our main goal right now.”

Labonte began the season with three DNFs in the first seven races and four finishes of 29th or worse, subsequently burying him in the points standings. Last year during his championship run, he had no DNFs the entire season and didn’t finish worse than 26th in any one of the 36 races.

“The big problem was the DNFs early in the year,” said Labonte’s crew chief Jimmy Makar. “We had three or four races there where we lost probably 250 points or so. That’s hard to make up over the course of a season. But, that’s water over the dam and we can’t get them back, so what we have to do is look forward and try to scrape and dig and do all we can to get as many points by the end of the year as we can.”

Nobody ever told Labonte defending his championship would be easy, nor did he believe it would be.

“I’ve seen it happen over the course of many years with other people,” Labonte said. “But after last year, I had high hopes and high expectations going into Daytona and we had a DNF down there. We came back the next weekend at Rockingham and nearly won (he finished second). We were tickled to death over that and thought, ‘Well, we’re back on track again.’

“But for the most part, it just kind of happened slowly and I realized myself that, ‘You know, we’re not quite as competitive as I want to be.’ I needed to say, ‘OK, instead of thinking that you’re supposed to run good, you need to think that if you’re not going to run good, you need to work on it. It was kind of over the course of the next few races after Rockingham that it was evident that maybe we were not going to be as competitive as I thought we were.”

Since blowing an engine at Texas in early April and finishing 42nd, Labonte’s worst finish was a 22nd-place effort at California. He hasn’t finished worse than 13th (Michigan) since then.

Makar said at no time during the terrible start did the team or Labonte ever believe it couldn’t make it back into the Top 5 by season’s end.

“We still felt like we were going to have a decent shot at that,” Makar said. “That would have been respectable. Now all of this goes without saying that a lot of this depends on what our competitors do. If other people run into the same kind of problems during the course of the year, things could get a lot more interesting and there could be a lot more people involved in the mix of actually running for the championship.

“Right now, our big goal is to get competitive, and that’s what we’ve been working on really hard from race to race. We see some progress being made and I feel a lot better right now than I did 10 races ago about the prospects of winning races and being competitive week-in and week-out.”

Last year, Labonte won four races on his way to the title. He has yet to drive into victory lane in 2001.

Certainly few could have predicted Labonte would be winless at this point of the season. Even more amazingly, however, is the fact that Labonte and Jeff Burton have only one victory between them after 17 events.

Labonte hopes to change all that at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. The Joliet, Ill., venue is a 1.5-mile track, like the ones where Labonte and his team usually excel.

“I think it’s going to be a great race,” Labonte said. “Jeff Gordon and I tire tested up there a few weeks back. He ran a lot more laps than we did. We weren’t quite set up correctly for it, but the tire that Goodyear is going to bring is going to be really good for us. The temperature is probably going to be kind of warm.

“The track is really exciting. At most new tracks the groove is probably going to be more predominantly on the bottom of the track, but you never know. We’re looking for a good race and I’m excited about it.”

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