This week's NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference featured Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet and his crew chief, Michael "Fatback" McSwain. Labonte finished 4th at last week's race in Las Vegas and is currently...
This week's NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference featured Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet and his crew chief, Michael "Fatback" McSwain.
Labonte finished 4th at last week's race in Las Vegas and is currently 13th in the point standings. He also won his 22nd career Bud Pole at LVMS and set a new track and qualifying record in the process. Labonte promises to be a strong contender at this week's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta. He has won at Atlanta Motor Speedway five times - including a stretch of four wins in seven races from 1996 thru '99 - and has two career poles and holds the qualifying record at AMS (194.957 mph on 3/12/99).
Q&A's WITH BOBBY LABONTE:
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON LAST WEEK'S RACE AT LAS VEGAS AND THE UPCOMING EVENT AT ATLANTA? "I think Las Vegas was a big step for us. We went out there with high hopes and big expectations. We tested pretty good out there. We rolled off Friday with a good car that was set-up pretty good obviously, because we started off practice pretty fast and we kept getting better and better. To win the pole Friday night was a great boost to the whole race team. Saturday we practiced pretty good and on Sunday we worked on the car a little bit during the race and changed a few things trying to fine-tune it. But we couldn't really get going in the first 10 laps of a run, but we were really pretty good after that. We stayed in the top five - top seven most of the day. The car was great; the pit stops were good. We missed a couple of accidents in front of us that we could have been collected in if we were in the wrong place. But for a change, we weren't. We had a top five, which was a solid run for us because I always consider Las Vegas as one of the tougher tracks for me to race on. I think I qualify better there than I race. But our race there was good and we were excited that we were able to get a good finish plus a good run. At Rockingham, we had a good run but didn't have a good finish. So, it was good to finish that off with a top five."
ON ATLANTA "Atlanta is a great track for us. We've run good there in the past. This will be the first time that Fatback and I will be there together. We've got a brand new race car and a lot of good notes from the past. We've got things that Fatback has done there in the past with Ricky Rudd. We're definitely looking forward to it. This is one of the tracks that I like to go fast at and like to go good at. When you get the car handling right, it just makes it a lot more fun."
WHAT ARE YOUR LIKES AND DISLIKES OF MARTINSVILLE SPEEDWAY? "One of the 'likes' is that it's really close to my home and I hope they don't take it off the schedule (laughs). But it really is a neat race track to go to. They've done a lot of work. It's a tight race track and it's been around for many years. A lot of tracks have come and gone as far as changes (improvements) and stuff at their facilities, but I think Martinsville has kept up with the best of them with the half-mile facility located next to a railroad track. It's been around for a long time. They didn't start off with a clean sheet of paper in 2001 to build a race track, so that probably makes it a little bit tougher for them. But they've done a great job at it. The track surface that they changed last time wasn't really to my liking as much as I hope it will become. It was different for us and I couldn't get as good a handle on it as I did the time before without the grinding of the inside of the race track. But I do like it and it is close to home. It's a challenging race track. We have pretty good runs there. When you have a challenging track and you can go out there and successfully run good at, it's a lot more fun."
WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTATIONS GOING TO ATLANTA WITH THE NEW CHEVROLET? "I know it's a good race car. It's great to be driving GM products - last year with Pontiac and this year with Chevrolet. It's a great race car and we think we're on the right track with making our car create as much downforce as we can and the least amount of drag that we can with the templates that we've been given. I know that the guys (in the shop) work real hard at putting the best bodies on that they can. We have a lot of changes that have happened over the winter, but I think so far we're doing the right job of getting all the details right."
WITH SUCH A LARGE TURNOVER IN SPONSORS IN THIS SPORT, HOW HAVE YOU MAINTAINED YOUR LONG TERM SPONSORSHIP WITH DALLAS-BASED INTERSTATE BATTERIES? "I know it goes back to the trust and family-style relationship that Joe Gibbs has built with them for the past several years. Obviously they are a long-running sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing. The story goes that Joe called them out of the blue one day and they met like that. It's just a great feeling, obviously. I'm sitting here right now with my Rolodex and phone book in front of me, and most everybody at Interstate Batteries has their phone number in here. They can all call me. It's like a big family. We all have done things with our families together. It's just one of those involvements that's a business relationship, but that feels more like a family relationship than anything else. It's the way that everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing works and it's the same type of foundation that you have at Interstate Batteries."
DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL MORE AT EASE KNOWING THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO FIND A NEW SPONSOR EVERY YEAR? "It does make it a lot easier. It is a comforting factor to know that next year we'll have Interstate Batteries. We've had them for the past several years. They build a relationship and marketing plan around the driver. It's kind of like Dale Earnhardt driving the Goodwrench car. It's kind of hard to see yourself doing anything. It's a great feeling that you have such great people to work with."
ARE YOUR ASSOCIATE SPONSORSHIP RELATIONSHIPS SIMILAR? "Associate sponsors have come and gone in the past, but it goes back to what Joe Gibbs Racing stands for. Even though some sponsors didn't get to stay as long as Interstate Batteries, but the foundation is built there to create a relationship that (perhaps) financially they can't stick around, but at the same time we personally keep in touch with these people. If their organization comes back around and they want to sponsor a race car, it seems like the first person they come to is Joe Gibbs. That relationship is ongoing in terms of never burning a bridge."
HOW MANY ASSOCIATE SPONSORS ARE NECESSARY? "It just depends. You need a lot of associate sponsors if they have a smaller amount of money to spend. Or, you could have two or three associate sponsors if they had more money to spend. It just depends on what's going on. We've been both ways before."
DO SPONSORS EXPECT A CERTAIN BEHAVIOR OF THEIR DRIVERS? "There are some drivers that are probably good with some sponsors and not good with others. It depends on the image you portray or the image you have. They (the sponsors) have to find that fit themselves. I don't think the driver can change the way they are to fit a sponsor. In my case with Interstate Batteries, we have a great relationship. What they want in me is who I am - not who they want me to be. I don't worry about trying to do anything different other than what you're supposed to do and who you are as a person."
HOW HAVE THE SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS HELPED THE SPORT AND DO YOU FEEL YOU ARE SAFER NOW THAN YOU'VE EVER BEEN IN A RACE CAR? "I haven't been to the safety center in Concord (NC) yet. I've been invited, but I just haven't gotten there. They (NASCAR) have changed their thinking from three years ago to now. I think it's great what they're doing. It's a whole other division today than what they were probably thinking about three years ago. They were thinking about it, but they weren't doing quite as much (then) as they are now. Five years ago, I thought I was a safe as I could be in a race car. Today, I think the same. But I know I'm safer today than I was five years ago. Five years from now, I think I'll say the same thing. But five years from now, they'll be more improvements that will make you safer yet. The head and neck restraints, the seats, the cars, the walls - at least at one track - are safer. I know we're making improvements on our own too. I have to applaud NASCAR for stepping up to the plate and doing that. They didn't have to, but they stepped up 100 percent. I feel very comfortable with everybody working at it."
IS THERE ANY PARTICULAR ASPECT OF THE RACE CAR OR RACE TRACK THAT COULD BE MADE SAFER THIS YEAR? "I think this is going to be ongoing. This is an endless tunnel that we're working on. You're never going to say we've done everything that we can. Things that come to my mind right now are the carbon monoxide issues. That's a big thing. And the soft walls that we have at Indy aren't everywhere. Could they be everywhere? Can they be everywhere? I know they're working on them, but what will it take to get better? Our race car construction is too stiff, I think. It needs to be weakened up. The worst accidents with the car flying apart -- like when Ryan Newman crashed at Daytona - looked really bad. But I saw him at the Infield Care Center and he was (just) dirty. And yet some wrecks don't look that bad but the driver can get hurt because the chassis is too stiff and doesn't give. I'd rather have one that flies apart and looks exciting and (then) walk away (from it), than one that looks like a mediocre hit but gives you a broken vertebrae or something like that."
HOW HAVE THE NEW GARAGE ACCESSS RULES CHANGED YOUR LIFE AT THE TRACK? "The biggest thing that I've seen about it is that the garage area has less people in it at times when it needs to be, which is 30 minutes prior to and 10 minutes after the practice sessions. That's when a lot of the guys are going back and forth from the cars to the trucks and cars are being pushed around more often and you're in and out of the garage. The safety aspect is the biggest thing I see out of it. And from the driver's point of view, when you go from the garage to the transporter right after practice, you can make it there to talk to the crew chief or do interviews or whatever. You try to do your job, and that's what it's helping us to do. Then you still have 10 minutes after that when you go to your motor home or the hotel to sign autographs for people that do come into the garage area. But it give you the time to do your work and also gives them the time to come in and see what's going on and possibly see a driver go by."
HOW MANY FEWER AUTOGRAPHS ARE YOU SIGNING? "Quite a few. Probably half (as many)."
IS ATLANTA A TRACK WHERE SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS? "When you find a track where you run good, you become more successful there because you're confident there. I'm more excited to go to Atlanta than I was to go to Vegas because I think I have a better feel for what I can find in a race car at Atlanta than I do at Las Vegas."
DO YOU THINK THE TEAMS SHOULD HAVE A SAY IN THE SCHEDULE? "As long as the car owners are aware of what's going to happen. Obviously we don't need to spend more. It costs less to go to Rockingham than it does to go to Seattle. I think the car owners should be advised or asked how things are going to affect them."
ON GOING ALL THE WAY FROM ROCKINGHAM TO LAS VEGAS "That's why the sport has grown so much as it has. We can go to Las Vegas and sell out 140,000 seats. If Rockingham was in April or May, it might have every seat sold too. It's tough. Chances are it's going to be cold and maybe wet or maybe even frozen at Rockingham the week after Daytona. It's maybe tough for them. But the logistics are hard enough for somebody to do who works at it all the time, much less when I think about it for three minutes out of a week. Rockingham is on a chopping block it seems like. It sure would be nice to give it a chance. If it was in May, would it sell out all the seats? And then maybe they could add more if they could. It's not as populated as Las Vegas, I know. But it's still got racing. And the seat they do have, have been sold out before. It's just that the weather plays a big factor."
HOW IS YOUR SEASON GOING SO FAR? HOW HAS THE ADDITION OF FATBACK MEANT TO THE TEAM? "I do feel confident that we are going to have some success this year in winning races and having a chance at the championship. I had positive emotions coming into the season. That stems from having Fatback coming on board and from making some changes in our race team and changes in our body styles and chassis and a lot of stuff. I think Fatback is given a lot of credit. Jimmy Makar has changed his role here at the shop, which helps out both race teams. Michael (Fatback) came in with a different thought process and way he does things. The past two years after we won the championship, we kind of got stale there. We weren't making any headway. It wasn't anybody's fault. We just landed somewhere and couldn't find ourselves out of a hole. I give a lot of credit to Fatback and Greg Zipadelli (#20 crew chief) and Jimmy - all three of them - because they worked around what's best for the No. 18 car. We did things that we all, internally, thought would make the whole race team organization better."
TONY STEWART SAID HE JUST WANTS TO HAVE FUN. DO YOU THINK HE'S HAVING FUN? "Last year he had a lot of pressure on him. It was probably unforeseen pressure that you can't see until you live it. You can say that you don't feel it but you really do. You don't know it at the time until it's over. I know that he was relieved after Homestead last year just like I was in 2001. The first six or eight races, you are a lot more at ease until you get yourself settled in. Your same goal is to do the same thing again. But you're going to be more relaxed the second time around than you were the first time around."