Labonte Isnt Finished Yet

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Terry Labonte has heard the whispers. He’s read the stories.

Some say he’s through, he’s lost it, he should retire. At 45 years of age, after 23 years on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Labonte needs to move on.

The proof, cynics say, is in the numbers. Since winning his second championship in 1996, Labonte has gone downhill. He was sixth in the points in ’97, with one victory and eight Top 5s. He was ninth in the points in ’98, with one victory and five Top 5s. He was 12th in the points in ’99, with one victory and one Top 5. He was 17th in the points in 2000, with no victories and three Top 5s.

Last year, he was 23rd in the points with no victories and one Top 5. He made all 36 races but was the only driver in the Top 40 who didn’t lead a single lap.

Still, the idea of retirement hasn’t run through his head, even if it has gone through a few who cover the Winston Cup Series.

“There’s no thought of that, no talk of that,” Labonte said. “A couple people would rather sit around and make up stories. They wouldn’t want the truth to stand in the way of a good story. Unfortunately, we have a lot more of that than we ever used to have. I avoid the press more today than I ever have.

“You’re lucky I’m talking to you. I’m in a good mood today.”

Why is he in a good mood? Labonte talked confidently to RacingOne about his Hendrick Motorsports team turning things around, running better, maybe even winning. Retirement, in fact, is many years down the road.

“I really want to run at least five more years,” Labonte said. “That’s my goal. There’s no reason why I can’t. I’ve got a good team. I want to win another championship. First, we’ve got to get to where we can win races again and then look at the championship. It could all happen in the same year, there’s no question about that.”

Labonte didn’t say it would happen in 2002, but he clearly is more convinced that he can run well than he has been in a long time. Why? The reasons are many, but perhaps they begin with some new leadership of Labonte’s No. 5 team.

Labonte brought Gary DeHart back to Hendrick for the 2000 season, believing the crew chief could get Labonte back to winning consistently. But it didn’t work, and Labonte kept struggling. So DeHart was bumped aside, given another role within the organization.

“There’s not a person here who can’t say that Gary didn’t show them something,” Labonte said. “I just hate things didn’t work out any better than they should have. I really think the world of Gary. I won a championship with him, and he was on my team when I won the other championship (in 1984). If I had to do it over again, I’d (bring him back) again.

“We had to make some changes to try to get better. Gary’s still at Hendrick Motorsports, which is good. He’s a sharp guy, and I know he can contribute to the whole organization.”

But not as Labonte’s crew chief. That task now falls to Jim Long, who was hired in late December. Long has worked for several teams, crew chiefing for Ultra Motorsports before consulting with Hermie Sadler’s fledgling team late last year.

“Jim coming is kinda new,” Labonte said. “He’s got new ideas. There’s nothing wrong with having new ideas from time to time and do things a little differently. Sometimes you can get in a rut and think you’re doing things right. Someone walks up and says, ‘I don’t think you need to be doing that way.’”

The team has tried a lot of things, hoping to get Labonte back to the consistency he wants. Even though it’s early in the process, Labonte’s confidence is proof he likes the new mix.

“It’s going pretty good,” Labonte said. “We had a good test (at Daytona). We ran pretty good all three days. I know when we come back we’ll be a little bit better.”

Labonte ended up with the eighth fastest non-drafting speed, and was near the top of the speed charts all three days. The team will also test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before the season starts.

“Jim’s only been on the job three weeks,” Labonte said. “It’s pretty overwhelming for him to come in here. It’s like, ‘Whoa. Where am I going to start at? What am I going to do?’ I think he’s done a really good job. The guys in the shop have been working hard. They like what they see. They really get along good.

“I feel good about it. Of course, time will tell. I really think we’ve got a good team.”

Labonte admitted that he believed that last year, too.

“With a couple breaks the right way, people could have said, ‘Boy you guys had a pretty good year,’ ” Labonte said. “We just didn’t have the consistency that we needed. We ran good a few times, and it’s hard to win when you only run good a few times. And every time we ran good, something would happen to us.”

He doesn’t want to make excuses any longer.

“It’s important for us to be consistent,” Labonte said. “That’s what we’re going to work on. We’re going to get our cars better. We’re redoing all our cars and trying to get them closer to what Jeff (Gordon) runs and what (Jerry Nadeau) runs. Ours are a little bit different. It’s kinda hard to take their setups and put in our cars because the cars are different.”

Having different cars is another reason why Labonte has struggled recently. Of course, the question that begs to be answered is why did he have different cars. The answer is simple, Labonte said.

“It’s one of the disadvantages of building your own cars,” Labonte said. “You’re able to do different things. If you bought your cars from Ronnie Hopkins, you’d have them all the same. You wouldn’t go out in left field like we do every now and then. Everybody’s trying to get better, and sometimes you take the wrong fork in the road.”

So the team is going over its fleet of cars, looking at everything.

“We’ve got to get our cars better,” Labonte said. “I know we can do that. We’ve looked at some things that aren’t right, and I say to myself, ‘Oh, boy. I can’t believe I didn’t see some of that stuff myself.’”

For Labonte’s sake, hopefully some of that stuff has been fixed. Perhaps then he could quiet the getting-louder-by-the-minute critics.

“I’m looking forward to the year,” Labonte said. “I really think we’ve got a good team. If we get off to a good start, we can be much better than a lot of people are going to give us credit for.

“We’re one of those teams that has a big question mark by them. Nobody knows how they’re going to do. We fall in that category, probably like Mark Martin’s team or a few others that have made some changes.”

Labonte, though, thinks the team has the answers.

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