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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

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.