Bobby says team is behind times



and must catch up now. No waiting for the Chevy deal.

LONG POND, Pa. -- Bobby Labonte hoped to be a contender for a second NASCAR Winston Cup title this year.

But despite a win early in the season at Martinsville, Va., the 38-year-old driver of NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs' No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac has been a struggler, not challenger. The Winston Cup champion two years ago and title runner-up in 1999 lost the sweet spot that gave him championship form in the recent past.

Labonte drove to 18 wins in the six years prior to 2002. A native of Corpus Christi, Tex., and brother of two-time series champion Terry Labonte, Bobby has seen his front-running program come unglued in 2002.

He comes to Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 500 this Sunday off a gritty 13th-place finish on Sunday at New Hampshire International in the New England 300 won by another struggler, Ward Burton. But for the 1991 NASCAR Busch Series champion and '92 series runner-up, 13th equals Labonte's other best finish in the last 12 races since he won in Virginia.

Coming out of New Hampshire where he had to start at the rear of the field because he wrecked his primary Pontiac in practice, Labonte is 20th in the standings topped by Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

"Not much is happening for us," Labonte said. "We're just not hitting anything right, right now. Up until this point, we just haven't run like we should have."

It's been gut-wrenching.

"We haven't been able to find what we need to find to go faster in the race car," Labonte added. "You can't fix something when you don't know what it is. How bad it is has been pretty much a reality check."

Throw in a load of misfortune and it's also been a Catch 22.

"A lot of times, you make your own luck, bad or good," Labonte pointed out. "Like, we're not running good, which puts us into a position to have bad luck. If we were running good, we'd be in a position to have good luck."

The Gibbs' racing teammate of Tony Stewart feels there's been lost traction over the last two years despite coming off a six-victory 2001.

"Things that worked two or three years ago don't work now," Labonte said. "Tires and cars have changed. Teams have had to change to be good. We're one of them that didn't change."

Labonte said the areas that baffle his team are in the cars' aerodynamics -- coded as "aero" in NASCAR parlance -- the harder tires and new chassis setups.

"A lot of things have hurt us," Labonte said. "Getting the car to the right place on the track aero-wise and chassis and working with the tries, we haven't gotten it done. We got a lot of everything we've got to change.

"Two years ago, we were doing the right things and we stayed there on those right things. The other guys who aren't doing so good, tried different things. Some of them worked while we stuck to our guns. We didn't change with the times and now we're paying for it."

Labonte is hoping for a major turnaround at Pocono, a 2.5-mile tri-oval with which he's had a love-hate relationship. In 19 starts at Pocono, he's won three but had some bad days too.

He said there's no middle ground at Pocono.

"If you win, it's your favorite track," Labonte said. "If you're not running good, you hate it, and 500 miles feels like a thousand. If you're not running good, you have those long straightaways to think about how lousy you're doing."

A month ago, Labonte finished 25th here on a day Dale Jarrett won the Pocono 500.

"With the aero the way it is today," Labonte said, "it's hard to make up for bad handling, which you need for those three turns, no matter how much motor you have."

He added, "If you start the day struggling at Pocono, you will not stop struggling."

Labonte, whose team will switch to Chevrolet-bodied race cars in 2003, says there's no waiting for next year.

"Right now, we just have to regroup at Pocono," Labonte said. "We're going to pick up our program because we're so embarrassed now that we have to pick it up. Can we straighten this out this year? Heck, yeah. We just have to start doing things right that we've been doing wrong."

Bud pole qualifying to set the field for the Pennsylvania 500 is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

The field for last month's Pocono 500 was set according to car owner points because water seeped in from beneath the track, creating a condition that forced NASCAR to cancel time trials.
Just one question: didn't Tony Stewart win only 3 races in 2001?
Yep Tony had 3, Bobby 2. Don't know where they got that stat unless they're counting McLaughlin's win in Busch?
I assume you're referring to this statement:

"The Gibbs' racing teammate of Tony Stewart feels there's been lost traction over the last two years despite coming off a six-victory 2001."

I have not idea what the author means. TS won 3 races last season and Bobby won 2.

TS won 6 races in 2000, I think, and Bobby won six races in 2000 and 2001 combined.

Suffice it to say that if you are in search of stats, I would not refer anyone to this guy.
High hopes should accompany the Gibbs team with the eventual switch to Chevy,but I imagine it could actually cause a few early season struggles as well.Strange how quickly the fortunes can turn in this sport.Seems like these days you can be on top of the game one season and in a 'slump' the next.

I like the Gibbs guys,but certainly hope they researched the switch of brands carefully.JMO,but this team[and Stewart in particular]almost certainly were 'recruited'heavily by Chevrolet.
Well luckily for them, they can keep their same chassis with the switch, just change the bodies. So at least that helps a bit in making the switch. And knowing Joe, he did his homework and got plenty of input from the teams before making it official.
he isnt on my "bash" list either. lol j/k so i hope he gets turned around.
It's been about the same thing for the Yates teams as well. And even Gordon's team, to a degree. They just aren't up there like they were a year or two ago. Labonte's struggles have been most evident since he's sitting around 20th in the points when he's usually contending for the championship. Even Jarrett, who's still out of the top-10, has been a pretty big surprise.
Pretty fair assessment it sounds like to me. I think the comfort level for that team got too high. They're starting to come around...
Top Bottom