Defending champion B. Labonte ready

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Aug. 3, 2001 - Bobby Labonte will have a busy Brickyard 400 weekend, both on and off the track. He started out race weekend with three press conferences in a row this morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Aug. 3, 2001 - Bobby Labonte will have a busy Brickyard 400 weekend, both on and off the track.

He started out race weekend with three press conferences in a row this morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's WorldComplex Media Center. Then he will compete in the True Value International Race of Champions race on the 2.5-mile oval Saturday afternoon as the series leader by just one point over 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner Kenny Brack.

On Sunday, Labonte will go on the line with 42 other drivers in a bid to become the first NASCAR Winston Cup pilot to win the Brickyard 400 in consecutive years.

Well, first the IROC race. It's a logjam at the top, with Labonte accumulating 44 points through the first three races with a victory at Talladega. Brack is next at 43 and 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. and Tony Stewart tied for third at 39. Labonte will have three open-wheel veterans chasing him in stock cars.

"It seems like those guys have caught on, and they have done better the past two years," Labonte said last week during a two-day testing session. "I haven't run the IROC series that much, but from watching years before, the guys we're running with now are pretty comfortable to run with. So, for the most part, I can't really see much difference in it."

In addition to being the defending Brickyard winner, Labonte also is the defending Winston Cup champion. This season has not been the same, though. Until he won the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono on July 29 in the series' 20th race of the season, Labonte had a best finish of second at Rockingham in the season's second race and past that had no finish better than fifth. Despite the rough ride this season, Labonte still cherishes the Brickyard win last year, a 4.229-second triumph over Rusty Wallace, the largest margin of victory in the first seven editions of the event.

"It's definitely quite an event to win," Labonte said. "I didn't really think that much about it until the cool-down lap. It is overwhelming as far as a victory goes. "I was telling somebody, 'In my house, I've only got two trophies, and this is one of them. You can figure out what the other one is and make it out.' That's all that's in there. It definitely is different than anywhere else, I think, that you could win."

Labonte's recent test in the familiar #18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac was more routine than mind-boggling.

"I think we're learning a lot," he said. "We're not going as fast as we'd like to, but I think we're learning things - maybe what not to do when we come back. So, whether you go fast and learn something or go slow and learn something, learning something is always good.

"We're probably not where we want to be on horsepower. At the same time, last year, the #2 car (Wallace) probably had more horsepower than we did, and we beat him. We can't worry about it too much. What we have is what we have, and we have to make it work the best for us. "Sometimes it makes you work harder in other places, and if you get better there and you do gain some more horsepower, then all of a sudden, you're better again. It doesn't matter whether it's aerodynamics or engine or chassis, you just have to work hard with what you have."

Like other drivers and teams in both NASCAR tests at the Speedway, the emphasis was making tires and springs work.

"Definitely the grip's not there," Labonte said, "and when all 43 cars get back here for the race, there's going to be a lot of rubber on the racetrack. It's going to be pretty slippery. The (new) tire's hard. We'll be going slower, but you can still have a good race if you're going slower."

He said his chances of defending his Brickyard title are "one in 43."

"Especially with the new tire situation and a couple new rule changes," Labonte said. "... the sheer competition of everybody else. If you're not 100 percent, somebody else is going to be, and they're going to beat you."

-IMS-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Eddie Cheever , Kenny Brack