Bobby Labonte back on track at Martinsville

Bobby Labonte back on track at Martinsville

Bobby Labonte has been on a tear at the short tracks this season. In fact, the ...

Bobby Labonte has been on a tear at the short tracks this season. In fact, the #18 Chevy has been out front so many times in less-than-one-mile circuits, it's hard to believe he hasn't visited victory lane.

Bobby Labonte.
Photo by Greg Gage.
In five races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond this season, Labonte has four top-10 finishes, including a pair of second-place finishes. He's looking for a win in the final short track event of 2003 - the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway (Sunday at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).

"We've done a pretty good job there," says Labonte, who has top-10 finishes in five of the past six races at Martinsville. "We have really stepped up the program and everything seems to be going in the right direction."

The Interstate Batteries team took the lead after a two-tire pit stop late in the April race at the .526 mile oval. He battled with Jeff Gordon in the closing laps, but couldn't stay ahead of the #24, who nudged Labonte to make the winning pass with 13 laps to go.

"We held Jeff off as long as we could," says Labonte, who led 48 laps and finished second after using a provisional to make the field. He was nearly lapped by Gordon early in the race but rallied during a long green flag run. "That was good, clean fun."

Martinsville was a nice rebound for the team after finishing 32nd or worse in three of the previous four races. The second place finish helped build a bond between Labonte and new crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain, who joined the team prior to the 2003 season.

"The Martinsville race was a big turning point for myself and Fatback as a driver-crew chief combination," Labonte admits. "The communication that day was awesome and he made me take some chances I might not have normally wanted to take. I trusted him with his calls in the pits and it paid off."

Bobby Labonte.
Photo by Thomas Chemris.
The Joe Gibbs Racing team changed manufacturers in the off-season and it took some time for Labonte to make the adjustment to a new crew chief and a new car. The 2000 Winston Cup champion struggled in the first two races of the season before picking up a fourth-place finish in Las Vegas. He led 164 laps the following week and won the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"We kind of fooled ourselves and everybody else at the beginning of the year," says McSwain. "We came out of the box running so well and everything was going like clockwork."

After a short-lived dry spell, the #18 team peeled off five straight finishes of third or better and jumped to fourth in the point standings.

"We've grown through the summer months," says McSwain. "We had to buckle down and understand what each other was trying to say. I think everything is going in the right direction."

Labonte is eighth in the championship standings, one point behind his teammate Tony Stewart and 180 ahead of his brother Terry. He finished sixth last week at Charlotte.

"We've been running good week in and week out," Labonte says. "We take it one race at a time, but I feel like we've got a good race team."

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