Ages And Ages Ago

The year 2000 must seem like ages ago to Bobby Labonte.

But for most of the rest of us, it seems like only yesterday that Labonte was winning races, consistently finishing in the Top 5, and getting all the press in the world on the way to a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

It just seems unreal that in less than two short years, Labonte has become an “also-ran.”

That sounds like a negative term, but in Labonte’s case, it’s just relative to his current position in the Winston Cup points standings (21st). Since coming to Joe Gibbs Racing in 1995, Labonte has never finished worse than 11th in the points.

During his championship campaign two years ago, Labonte never finished worse than 26th. That’s how championships are won.

He does have one victory this season (at Martinsville), but he also has seven finishes of 30th or worse and has finished outside the Top 20 10 times. That’s how you finish outside the Top 20 in the points.

Last year, Labonte got off to a slow start but wound up winning two races and finishing sixth in the points. This year, with the exception of Martinsville, he really hasn’t even been close.

It’s virtually the same team as two years ago. Interstate Batteries isn’t doing anything different as far as its sponsorship is concerned.

Some may try to blame it on the current Pontiac Grand Prix that Labonte drives and how far technology-wise that car has fallen behind the other makes in less than two short seasons.

But Labonte’s teammate, Tony Stewart, is still winning races (two) and is fifth in the points standings with virtually the same cars. Stewart has ten top-10 finishes and has been a strong contender most weeks this season, but Labonte has only three top-10s in 2002.

Go figure.

“I have tried to tell everyone that all of the problems we have had this season are not the fault of the current Pontiac we have,” Labonte said. “We do feel as though we have been at a large disadvantage, but we have numerous other things we are working on in the shop and hopefully we can get all of that to come together before we give up on the 2002 season.”

Joe Gibbs Racing recently announced that it was switching back to Chevys in 2003 after five years with Pontiac, foregoing the opportunity to see how well the new 2003 Grand Prix will perform. Labonte said he believes that is just Step 1 in helping the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team get back to prominence.

“We’ve got to look toward the future, and that was the reason for the announcement with Chevy,” Labonte said. “The Pontiac is still a great car and they have been very good to not just me, but all of Joe Gibbs Racing. The environment, however, has changed in the garage area and we felt for us to get back to the top, we need to be able to get immediate feedback from the other teams. By switching over to Chevrolet, we allow ourselves to do just that by seeing how we compare to the cars of Hendrick, DEI and Childress.”

But let’s get back to this season. After finishing 18th at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, Labonte understandably vented a bit of his frustration. After what he’s accomplished over the past few years in the Winston Cup Series, consistently finishing between 15th and 35th has gotten a bit difficult for him to swallow.

“Yes, it sucks,” Labonte said. “When you’ve been there and tasted victory and all that stuff, it’s like, wow, that’s a lot of hard work and this is all it’s worth? Sometimes success can be a little tougher, too, because once you’ve had it and now you’re not doing as well as you have in the past, you want so much to get back there again, more so than ever. And you get frustrated quicker, because you been there, and you want to back there.”

Labonte was hoping to erase a little of the 2002 “bad luck” this weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway, a track that has seen him finish in the Top 3 in each of the last two fall races there. He qualified fourth on the Friday afternoon, and things appeared as if they might be looking up.

Saturday morning in practice, however, Labonte hit the outside retaining wall exiting Turn 4. He was forced to go to a back-up car, and that means he’ll have to start Sunday’s New England 300 from the back of the pack.

The car, by the way, was the same one he won with at Martinsville back in April. It’s just another setback, one in a long line this season.

It seems all Labonte can do now is put his past behind him, finish out the rest of the season as best he can, and look forward to the future.

2000 may seem like a long time ago, and he hopes that 2003 will get here as quickly as possible.

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