NASCAR Winston Cup Series Hanes 500 Preview: #18, Bobby Labonte
24 September 1997
#18 Bobby Labonte, Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix NASCAR Winston Cup Series Hanes 500 Advance Martinsville Speedway LABONTE HOPES IMPROVEMENT PAVES WAY TO VICTORY LANE MARTINSVILLE, VA - Second-half comebacks are the norm at this time of the year as footballs fly across the autumn skies. As if in the spirit of the season, Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte is staging a late rally himself, and hopes it pays off in a long overdue visit to victory lane. The reserved 33-year-old, Corpus Christi, Texas, native remembers watching the late game heroics of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Labonte learned his lessons well, because he's showing a comeback flair of his own in the second half of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. He hopes that trend continues in Sunday's Hanes 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Teams typically hope to improve their performance in the second half of the season as the circuit returns to many tracks for a second time. Beginning with July's Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Labonte has competed on eight tracks for a second time. In five of those eight races, Labonte has improved his finishing position. That trend continued last Sunday in the MBNA 400 at Dover. Labonte finished fourth, earning his sixth top-five and 15th top-10 finish of the season. Labonte is still seventh in the point standings, 123 points out of sixth. Labonte ranks as the top driver in the point standings not involved in a multi-car team operation. "Teams always hope they will be better the second go-round at each track, and so far, we've usually been able to do just that," Labonte said. "That's important, because the top teams usually do that. I consider Joe Gibbs Racing a top team, so we expect to improve at each track the second time." Labonte and crew chief Jimmy Makar expected their second-half performance to pick up, but they also envisioned a slower start due to an offseason switch from Chevrolet to Pontiac. "We thought we were going to struggle through a tougher learning curve while getting adjusted to the Pontiac," Labonte said. "But we've been ahead of schedule as far as the point standings all year. As far as the changeover and everything, yeah, I'd have to say we're ahead of schedule. I think what helped us in that department was that the Grand Prix had been race track tested and race track proven for a year. But I'm still not real happy with all our results. And most importantly, we haven't won." Historically, Martinsville is a tough track for Joe Gibbs Racing. The flat short track isn't one of Labonte's best, but (the last time he was there) he broke through with an eighth-place run. The race was largely a struggle for the team, but Makar's call for a two-tire pit stop late in the race enabled Labonte to gobble up desperately needed track position -- and the top-10 finish. Continuing his trend of improvement in the season's second half will be difficult. "We kind of struggled," Labonte said of April's race at the 0.526-mile track. "That's typical for me and Martinsville. That's why I was so happy to get a top-10. Martinsville is a track where we've rarely shown top-five potential, let alone top-10, so that's why I was happy with the finish. It's going to be tough to improve upon our performance there, but we're certainly going to try." Team notes: Labonte and the Interstate Batteries team conducted the two-day Goodyear Tire test at Atlanta Motor Speedway Tuesday and Wednesday. .... Last Sunday's $41,485 in earnings pushed Labonte's season totals to $1,489,465, surpassing his previous season-best total of $1,475,196 with six races still remaining on the schedule. ... Labonte has held down seventh-place in the point standings 15 consecutive races. By Camp & Associates, Inc.