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Labonte looking to turn season around

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Bobby Labonte has gotten over the shock of performing poorly. Now, he'd just like to get back to the front.

Heading into Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway, the 2000 Winston Cup champion is mired in 18th place in the standings, 660 points behind leader Sterling Marlin.

Labonte has just one victory and three top fives, on pace for his worst season since 1994.

To make matters worse, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart still has a shot at the title, sitting fourth just 104 points back.

''It's definitely frustrating to know all of this happened just two years after we won the championship,'' Labonte said. ''We just haven't been doing things as well as we need to.''

The quickness of his slide from the top is even more surprising. In his championship year, Labonte won four races and finished in the top five 19 times in 34 starts. He also finished every race, completing all but nine laps.

Last season, the number of victories fell to two, but he managed a sixth-place finish in the standings.

He admits part of his problem is the outdated body style of the Pontiac he drives. Developed before the 1996 season, the car hasn't been altered dramatically and has fallen behind the new Dodges, Fords and Chevrolets.

''I guess I would say the Pontiac is not the most efficient car,'' Labonte said. ''It's a good race car, but the Dodge and Ford have more downforce and make less drag, and we're kind of restricted on what we can do by our body style.''

To combat this, the team announced a switch to Chevrolets for 2003, and Labonte and Stewart may use Monte Carlos in some events later this year.

''The Chevy is a notch better,'' Labonte said. ''We've only tested the cars a couple of times, so we ain't going to pick up things in two weeks that other Chevy teams have learned over the years.''

Even without a Chevrolet, Labonte is looking forward to Michigan. He's won three times at the track, including a sweep of the two races in 1995.

And NASCAR announced a rule change for this race only which will allow Pontiac teams to bump their front air dams out an extra half-inch.

Theoretically, this should allow for more front downforce and better balanced car.

''I'm really not sure what to expect,'' Labonte said. ''I would love to say that's what we needed, but I know we were asking for a lot more than we received. I guess we'll take what we can get and make the best of it.''

Another driver eager to get back to the track this weekend is Jimmy Spencer, but for much different reasons.

He was replaced from his regular ride at Watkins Glen last Sunday by road-racing expert Scott Pruett, who challenged for the lead late before finishing sixth.

Spencer, meanwhile, failed to qualify in one of the team's backup cars and watched the race from atop the pit wagon.

''I think everybody thought I'd surrender and go home, but I was up there for everything,'' Spencer said. ''I went through our meetings before the race, and rooted for Scott and the guys during the race.

''It was very educational and informative, and it gave me a new perspective.''

He's had decent success at Michigan, including two 11th-place finishes last season. Earlier this year, he wound up 28th after starting 13th.

''We've always run pretty good up there,'' Spencer said.

''We didn't have the car the way we needed it in June, but we realize what we did wrong. We're going back with a different setup than we had the first time, so we'll be good.''



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