NASCAR Winston Cup Series Mountain Dew 500 Preview: #18, Bobby Labonte
27 August 1997
#18 Bobby Labonte, Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix NASCAR Winston Cup Series Mountain Dew Southern 500 Advance Darlington Raceway LABONTE LOOKS TO STEAL THUNDER AT DARLINGTON DARLINGTON, SC - Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte doesn't have a $1 million incentive to win Sunday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but then again, he doesn't need such fuel to light his competitive fire. Jeff Gordon can win the Winston Million bonus if he wins the oldest race on the NASCAR Winston Cup tour, but Labonte hopes to steal his thunder by winning his first race of the season. Don't count out the 33-year-old Corpus Christi, Texas, native. Labonte is closing in on a long overdue trip to victory lane. In 22 starts this season, Labonte has five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. At the same point in the season last year, Labonte had three top-fives and nine top-10s. Beginning with a second-place run in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Labonte has one top-five and three top-10 finishes in his last four starts. Labonte has captured four consecutive top-10 finishes at Darlington. Labonte is confident his fifth career NASCAR Winston Cup victory can't be far off. "We've really gained on it the last month for so," Labonte said. "We slumped a little in the middle part of the season, but now we're back to running the way we were earlier in the season, and if we keep knocking down all these top-10 finishes, odds are we'll win a race soon." Labonte concedes that Gordon will be the odds-on favorite for Sunday's race. But Labonte feels his Joe Gibbs Racing team has what it takes to prevent him from winning the Winston Million. In fact, a strong run by Labonte would enable him to push his season's earnings mark to its highest ever. Labonte needs just $90,407 to surpass last year's total of $1,475,196. Labonte has won more than $1 million for three straight seasons. "My first full year on the circuit, we didn't even win $400,000," Labonte said."I guess that's another sign of the sport's tremendous growth. The race purses go up each year, and the new tracks in Texas and California are paying big purses, and that's good for the sport. A million dollars is a lot of money, whether it's one race or the full schedule." Labonte finished fifth in March's TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington, and was sixth in last year's Southern 500. Tire wear is always a crucial factor in running well at Darlington. The track is notoriously rough on rubber, putting chassis setups at a premium. "It's the same thing as always at Darlington," Labonte said. "This track wears tires out. You're fast for seven or eight laps, and then the speeds really start leveling off. Whoever has the best setup between 15 and 45 laps on the tires is going to be the guy to beat. I think everyone will be able to make them go for a full fuel run, but we're just really going to slow up." The fact that chassis setups are so crucial for success at Darlington has Labonte feeling confident he can be among Sunday's front-runners. That's because crew chief Jimmy Makar has an old formula for success at the 1.366-mile superspeedway. "I spoke with Dale Jarrett earlier this season and I told him we were running the same setups here that he used to," Labonte said. "I didn't need to come in and change it because Jimmy Makar has a great setup for Darlington. Dale left this team a few years ago, but Jimmy's still capitalizing on the same setups." By Camp & Associates, Inc.