Labonte Gets Interim Chief

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - Brandon Thomas, a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing engineering department, will serve as interim crew chief for Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, team officials announced Thursday.

Thomas takes over for Michael McSwain, who was released from his duties as crew chief Wednesday after severing as crew chief for the 2003 season and 18 races in the 2004 season. Team officials have not set a timetable for when a permanent crew chief will be hired.

"Brandon is a veteran employee of Joe Gibbs Racing and has worked closely with Bobby and the Interstate Batteries crew," J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR, said. "We're confident in his ability to lead us through this time of transition."

Thomas, 30, from Kingsport, Tenn., spent the 2003 season as the engineer for Labonte and served as crew chief for Mike Bliss' JGR-prepared No. 80 Slim Jim/Act II Chevrolet July 11 in the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Bliss was the top-qualifying JGR car at Chicago, starting seventh and finishing 31st after an accident on Lap 205.

Thomas began his JGR career in December 2001 in the shock department, before leaving in June 2002 to serve as John Andretti's crew chief at Petty Enterprises for the remainder of the 2002 season. After his stint at Petty, Thomas returned to JGR for the 2003 season as Labonte's engineer. During the 2004 season he has served as the head of Superspeeedway research and development for JGR.

Prior to coming to JGR in 2001, Thomas served as engineer for Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing South from Aug. 1999-Nov. 2001. During that time, Wallace scored six wins and finished seventh in points in 2000 and 2001. From 1998-July 1999, Thomas was the assistant race engineer for Dan Gurney's All-American Racers and driver Alex Barron in CART. Thomas earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech University in 1997.

"I'm excited for the opportunity to help the team out as interim crew chief," Thomas said. "I enjoy working with Bobby and the Interstate Batteries crew. I just want to help the team get through this transition period and put ourselves in a good position as we get closer to the final 10 races."

Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing, will assist Thomas and the team until a permanent crew chief is announced. Makar served as crew chief on the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet from 1992-2002, winning the 1993 Daytona 500 with Dale Jarrett and the 2000 NASCAR Championship with Labonte.

"I'm very confident in Brandon, and I think he'll do well in this role," Makar said.

Labonte has 2,278 points and is sixth in the Nextel Cup Series standings. He trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 442 points and trails fifth-place Matt Kenseth by 43 points.

"I worked very closely with Brandon in 2003, so I'm familiar with him," Labonte said. "We got a little bit of a break because we've got a weekend off before New Hampshire, so that will give us a little time to work on some things and get ready for the next few races."

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