Labonte Hoping For Rebound

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Jeff Gordon’s reign as NASCAR Winston Cup champion began Nov. 18, 2001 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he clinched the season title.

That was, interestingly, the same day Bobby Labonte won the NAPA 500. And the same day Labonte’s reign as NASCAR Winston Cup champion ended.

And as much as Labonte enjoyed sitting in victory lane, he really wanted to be at the finish line, where Gordon was celebrating. Being the champ one year and finishing sixth in points the next year is definitely a letdown.

“You come off a year like we did last year, and you want to try to do the same thing,” Labonte said. “When it’s not working out for you, it’s obviously harder to keep your chin up. But I’ll say that (crew chief) Jimmy ( Makar) and the guys and everybody at the shop, I don’t think we let it bother us like it definitely could have.

“We were 26th in points when we left (Atlanta) in the spring, and we probably didn’t gain on that very much the next few races after that, so it’s pretty hard to get caught up when the points are awarded through consistency. When you’re not consistent, then that’s the difference between this year and last year – a lot of it.”

No one had a more consistent season in 2000, when Labonte finished all 34 races and completed 10,158 of a possible 10,167 laps. Amazing. Labonte won by 265 points over Dale Earnhardt to secure his first Winston Cup title.

Then came 2001. He crashed in the Daytona 500, failing to finish for the first time in more than a year. Labonte’s team rebounded with a second-place finish at Rockingham, but trouble was brewing. He was 29th at Las Vegas, blew an engine and was 33rd at Atlanta, 11th at Darlington, 13th at Bristol, blew an engine and finished 42nd at Texas.

So much for a repeat championship. He was 25th in points after seven races, on the bottom looking up.

“A lot of it came from the hardness of the tire that Goodyear brought,” Labonte said of his team’s struggles. “There was nothing wrong with that, it was just that we took a little while to probably get acclimated to it and comfortable with it. The confidence wasn’t there to go fast on it. Then, we had six DNFs this year; we had zero last year. You can add those up and that’s a lot. If we had averaged a 22nd place finish out of those six DNFs, I think we would have been right there where Jeff was or behind him just a little bit.

“That didn’t help out, but, hey, we’re going to have that. If we can average them out to less than that a year, that’s great. But, we probably didn’t have all the confidence in the world on a harder tire and might not quite have gotten our setups just right the first part of the year and got them better towards the end.” Labonte did rebound, and that bodes well for 2002. After finishing 29th or worse in the first seven races, he only had three the rest of the year. There was a victory at Pocono, top-five runs at Talladega, Lowe’s, Daytona, Darlington and Martinsville. He then won at Atlanta and finished third in the season-finale at New Hampshire.

Already, Labonte is looking to do what Gordon did in 2000. Use a good finish to the season to propel him to the next.

“It’s kind of one of those deals where you look at what they did last year,” Labonte said. “They built their team up and they got better and better, and towards the end of the year, I was like, ‘Those are the guys that are going to win next year. Those guys are going to be tough to beat’ because they were coming on strong.

“They had the momentum going, so it’s kind of cool to see that because on the flipside, we didn’t start off our season just right, and halfway through the year, we kept getting better and better and better. Hopefully we can look at it the same way that I look at what they did. They were coming on strong and hopefully we’re doing the same thing for next year, too.”

The victory at Atlanta in the penultimate race can be a boost, too.

“I think so. I know Jimmy and I have talked about how heading into the offseason is always an exciting time because it’s not much time,” Labonte said. “You’ve got to get yourself built up for next year and we’re doing that. This helps out. I can say that the past two weeks, we’ve run good. The finishes might not have shown it, but we had a great race car at Rockingham and at Homestead, it was pretty good, too. I feel like we’re achieving things. We’re getting better and better and I know that’s going to give us confidence for next year.”

Confidence enough for a second Winston Cup championship? Perhaps.

“For the most part, for the whole season, I can’t complain about (2001),” Labonte said. “It’s all a lot of hard work like it was last year, but you’ve got to keep your nose to the grindstone and keep going. Even though this year we aren’t going to win the championship, but knowing that we had it last year – we’re a previous champion and it gives us confidence to hopefully do it again

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