Labonte looking to regain luck at Southern 500

Posted: Friday, August 31, 2001

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- If ever a race proved Bobby Labonte was in for a special season a year ago, the Southern 500 was it.

Now struggling in defense of his Winston Cup championship, Labonte hopes to recapture the winning edge and a little luck from last year at Darlington Raceway.

''Yeah, definitely we couldn't do much wrong'' last year, Labonte said while testing at the 1.366-mile layout earlier this month. ''This year, it feels like we can't do much right.''

Labonte's first Darlington victory was among four in 2000 as his Joe Gibbs Racing team went on to the Winston Cup championship.

And it was one of the most unlikely wins for the 37-year-old Pontiac driver.

Labonte had lost his primary car in a hard practice wreck the Friday before and qualified 37th. He moved among the top 10 most of the day, but didn't think his backup had enough to catch leaders like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Burton.

''We were top 10, maybe top five at best,'' Labonte said.

But the lightning bolts crackling nearby were a signal something nuts was going to happen.

As storm clouds moved in on NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, Earnhardt was in front and poised to get the checkered flag once the rain fell hard. But the torrents held off until Labonte, helped by a speedy pit stop that moved him from fifth to first, got the lead.

''When we left the pits, it started raining and it was like a dream come true,'' Labonte said. ''It could've went Dale's way, but for some reason it went our way like a lot of things did.''

Labonte and his crew celebrated the win under a metal garage roof in the pits, thunder sounding and lightning popping almost as often as camera flashes.

''Coming off last year, running pretty good in both races, we thought we would run good in the spring, but we didn't,'' he said.

Labonte was 11th and never a factor in Darlington's March race, the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

''There are a lot of things that have gone completely opposite for us that kept us from having the good finishes we thought we would have,'' Labonte's crew chief, Jimmy Makar, said.

Even testing at times has been a struggle. The team's helicopter was sent from Darlington back to the North Carolina shop for equipment they thought they packed on the hauler. Labonte and Maker just looked at each other as the chopper blades whirred away.

Things are getting better, Makar says, but not fast enough.

Since Labonte's only victory of the season last month in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, his best showings were two eighths, at Watkins Glen and Bristol.

''We're starting to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel,'' he said. ''But we're still not at the competitive level that I feel we need to be at. I'm a little disappointed in that.''

What's killed Labonte this year are his DNFs. Labonte finished every race last year, but has been behind the wall four times this season.

''Usually, one or two DNFs take you through the whole season,'' he said. ''We've gone from zero last year to four this year. People always ask what the difference this year is. That's the difference. That's a pretty big blow. That puts us back in the points.''

With 12 races remaining, Labonte is eighth in the points, 581 behind leader Jeff Gordon. Maybe too much to make up this year without a little luck on his side.

Then again, for Labonte, Darlington's been a lucky place.

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