Labonte learning to contend for championship By Marty Smith CONCORD, N.C. (Jan. 14, 1999) For Bobby Labonte, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season was a crash-course tutorial in success, and the many ways running up front affects a ...
Labonte learning to contend for championship By Marty Smith
CONCORD, N.C. (Jan. 14, 1999) For Bobby Labonte, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season was a crash-course tutorial in success, and the many ways running up front affects a career.
"I didn't want the season to end the way we were running, I'll tell you that," laughed Labonte Friday morning. "We feel like we have a top-notch race team, but we know we need to start off this year how we ended last year. That's not an easy thing to do, but it's what we need to do if we want to contend for a title."
Labonte was in full-bore dash to the title with Dale Jarrett in 1999, but down the stretch Jarrett's consistency was too much for the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team to overcome. Even so, Labonte shattered former career highs in all categories, posting career bests in victories (5), top-5s (23) and top-10s (26).
"As much as we made a consistency improvement, Dale was still much more consistent," Labonte said of Jarrett. "If we can get that average finish lower, we'll be in the top-3 for sure, and once you get there you usually have a shot at the championship.
"I think we can (challenge for the championship) in a lot of ways. There are still some areas we need to work on. I learned things last year that made me better. I think the team as a whole has gotten better throughout the year. When you run up front like we did last year it seems like you learn a lot. That's what we did last year. We can't wait to get started this year and have another shot at it."
And, by all counts they should have a good shot at earning a seat at the head table in New York next December. However, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization understands that in order to make giant strides, baby steps must come first.
"Our only goal for 2000 right now is to be competitive," Labonte said. "But that all goes back to the people. Hopefully, we've got those people in place to make this team make things happen. We had a great season last year, and we need to do it again.
"(Last year) it came down to a lot of hard work by everyone, and putting the right people in the right places. The communication is there, and that's a big key. That's what a lot of this deal is about. When you take one step forward and communicate, it's much easier to take that next step too."
Although he has always been a member of NASCAR's upper echelon of drivers, in 1999 Labonte placed himself in the elite fraternity of NASCAR Winston Cup Series competitors. He's been a contender for several seasons, but in '99 broke through as a legitimate threat everywhere he cranked the green No. 18 Pontiac. Thus, in NASCAR 2000, expectations are lofty.
"We're a lot closer now," he said. "By finishing second last year, we're a lot closer than we were the year before when we finished seventh. We may not have the same kind of year this year that we did last year, but if we don't lose anything from last year, we'll be okay. The past two years, we've been much more competitive, but not good enough to win. We need to get good enough to win.
"To do that, you can't make mistakes, and you need to finish in the top-10 every weekend. You must have a low average finish. Last year was very valuable though; I learned a lot about running up front. We led races, we ran up front, and that makes you see things differently."