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NAPA AUTO PARTS 500 / SPORTS EXTRA

That's What Bobby Labonte Wants to Do by Becoming NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Like Older Sibling Terry

April 26, 2000|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fathers and sons have won NASCAR Winston Cup championships, but never brothers.

Bobby Labonte, whose older brother Terry has won two of them, would like to make the Labontes the first sibling champions. And this year would not be too soon.

He was second behind Dale Jarrett last year and led through six races this year before hitting a bump at Talladega when a wreck helped drop him to second in the standings, behind Mark Martin. Even so, the low-key Labonte, who drives the Interstate Pontiac for former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, says it's too early to start thinking points.

"You just go out there each weekend and do the best you can do," he said while preparing to leave for Fontana, where he will begin practice Friday for Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500.

"We've got 34 races. If you can't win, you want to finish second. If you can't finish second, you want third, and so on down the line. The points will take care of themselves."

After nine races, Labonte has a victory at Rockingham, a second at Atlanta and a third at Texas. He had six top-10 finishes before the last two races, in which he was 12th at Martinsville and 21st at Talladega.

Talladega was frustrating for Labonte, first because there was little room to race in the early going and second because his car got caught up in an accident.

"Our problems at Talladega started before qualifying," he said. "We qualified on seven cylinders so we started way back [37th]. We thought we'd just hang around, not lose the draft and sit tight until it was time to move.

"We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I basically raced three laps all day long right before the wreck, and then didn't race any after that. I really didn't race any before that. I just rode around half throttle. You couldn't lose the draft because they were three-wide and four-wide, so you would just suck right back up and slow down a little bit. I'm not sure if that's racing or not. It sure didn't seem like it.

"Fortunately, the [crew] worked real hard and got me back out there after we wrecked. We lost one lap and were able to get back some positions that maybe didn't deserve being involved in a big wreck like that. Good day or bad day, at least we finished 21st, which wasn't all that bad."

It had been 20 races since Labonte had finished that far back, all the way back to last August at Bristol, Tenn. In 1999, Labonte led the most races, 30 of 34 events.

"The way I look at the season, each weekend I can run as good as I can and finish the race and then go home. Monday morning we wake up, read the paper and there it is--ain't nothing you can do about it. If you dig yourself a hole, it's because you are worried about it. But if you go out and run every race like you're not worried, I think that's the way you try to approach it.

"Of course, if you go out there the next three races and finish 35th or worse, yeah, you screwed up."

Labonte took his family to the North Carolina seacoast for a vacation in a rare week off before heading West.

"I'm looking forward to coming out to California and hopefully, get our lead back," he said. "I know Mark [Martin] runs good there--he runs good everywhere--but he's not the only one in the hunt. The way our season has gone [there have been no repeat winners in nine races], there are a number of guys who could be there at the end."

Only 134 points separate the first five drivers. Martin, who won at California Speedway in 1998, has 1,370 points, Labonte 1,346, Ward Burton 1,293, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt 1,272 and Jeff Burton 1,236.

Jarrett, the defending champion and Daytona 500 winner, is only 69 points behind Jeff Burton, with Jeff Gordon emerging from his slump with a win at Talladega to move up to seventh, 18 behind Jarrett.

The Talladega weekend had its pleasant moments for Labonte. He won his first IROC over the drivers he hopes to beat Sunday-- Martin and Earnhardt.

Although Labonte is 35 and in only his eighth Winston Cup season, he has been racing competitively for 30 years.

"Bobby started racing quarter midgets that our dad built when [Bobby] was 5," said big brother Terry, who won NASCAR'S biggest prize in 1984 and 1996. "Bobby raced them until I quit. Then we started racing stock cars at the local tracks around Corpus Christi [Texas], where our father was stationed in the Navy."

Terry moved to North Carolina to become a Winston Cup driver in 1978 and Bobby, eight years younger, followed in 1991 when he won the Busch Grand National series and tried his luck as a Winston Cup owner-driver in two races, neither of which he finished. In 1992 he became a Cup regular with Bill Davis, the same owner who brought Jeff Gordon into NASCAR. He drove for Davis for two years before replacing Jarrett on Gibbs' team in 1995.

Labonte was Gibbs' only driver until Tony Stewart came aboard last year. Even though he was the veteran and Stewart the rookie, Labonte insisted that everything be equal on the team. The chemistry worked as Labonte won five races and Stewart three.

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