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 MICHAEL "FATBACK" MCSWAIN:
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON YOUR FIRST POLE AND TOP FIVE FINISH WITH THE NO. 18 TEAM LAST WEEK IN LAS VEGAS, AND ON GOING TO ATLANTA THIS WEEKEND? "It's good to get the pole out of our system and now we're ready to go for the Bud Shootout next year. We tested out there and believe it or not, we didn't do any qualifying runs the whole time we were out there. We did all race trim stuff. So we were real happy to unload and be as good as we were and only have to do a little fine-tuning. The Vegas race went pretty good for us so we were pretty happy with everything.
"We didn't have a good finish at Rockingham, but we raced really good at Rockingham. So to finish a top five at Vegas was a good for us. Bobby always runs good at Atlanta, so this is definitely a good race to go into with the enthusiasm of coming off the past two races."
ARE YOU AND BOBBY BEGINNING TO DEVELOP A GOOD CHEMISTRY THIS EARLY IN THE SEASON? "We're beginning to understand what each other means when we make comments and decisions on things. He understands why and he understands where I'm always looking. We're starting to get that mutual understanding. That takes a little while. Are we where we need to be yet? No, not quite. Are we close? Yes. It's happening faster than anyone thought it would. I think a lot of that can be accounted to me coming over here and kind of hanging out for the last three or four races last year."
WITH THE HIGH SPEEDS AT ATLANTA, HOW TOUGH IS IT TO SET-UP FOR THAT TYPE OF TRACK? "It's its own beast, its own animal. It's a lot different than probably anywhere we go. The speeds are so high. You have to try to do the same things we do every week. It creates it's own amount of challenges. You've got to make sure your car is built right before you get there. To do what you need to so on set-up, you need to have the right kind of chassis and the right kind of body."
IS IT SIMILAR TO THE SET-UP FOR DAYTONA OR TALLADEGA? "No. We design the cars specifically for Atlanta. We may take them other places, but it's all built with Atlanta in mind. We do special things with the shocks and springs and the whole package just for Atlanta. You see similar speeds in Daytona and Talladega, but the characteristics are a lot different because the horsepower is so much greater. You enter the corner at a little higher speed, so things happen a lot differently than they do at Daytona or Talladega."
WITH THE SUCCESS OF ALL THE INEXPERIENCED YOUNG DRIVERS, HAS THAT CHANGED WHAT THE CREW CHIEFS NEED TO DO AND WHAT THE DRIVERS NEED TO DO? "No, not really. To be successful for a long period of time - whether it's a crew chief or a driver or a newspaper guy - you have to stay open-minded throughout your career. I think the veteran drivers who are still being successful or who have had an off year and are coming back up realize that they have to be open-minded and forget some of the things we did in the past because everything's different now. That's where the younger drivers have an advantage. They don't have anything to go off of five or six years ago and why it doesn't work anymore. A lot of the veteran drivers know now that they need to be open-minded and pretend like they don't have any history, then they'll develop new thoughts."
IS THAT WHAT BOBBY IS DOING NOW? "I think he's doing a real good job at it. I think he's being really open-minded about things and going off of feel and not going off of things he did before. But then the plusses of being with a veteran driver are that they remember situations during the race and how things could turn out, or that a track has been known to have a lot of cautions so they'd better be ready for this or that. When you take somebody like Bobby who's got the desire and the talent he's got, and now he's opened his mind back up to new ways and new ideas, I think he's going to be hard to handle."
AS A CREW CHIEF, IS THERE ANY PARTICULAR AREA OF SAFETY THAT YOU FOCUS ON MORE AND IS THERE A CERTAIN ARE YOU FEEL SHOULD BE LOOKED AT MORE CLOSELY? "We try to concentrate on driver safety week in and week out. We're always trying to think of things and pay attentions to things and learn from other people's mistakes and situations we see at the race track. I think we gain on that daily. I think it will be an ongoing process. NASCAR has done a really good job of giving us more information than we could probably afford to do ourselves, but they're doing it along with the manufacturers and teams. They're combining everybody's thoughts and resources and getting some results for everyone as fast as they can.
"Some of the things we've got to look at in the future are some of the situations we've had with fires. We've got to do a better job of figuring out how to eliminate some of that stuff and trying to do a better job of figuring out what we can do for that driver to have a fast escape from that car. Is it some type of a hatch over the driver? Is it making the windows even bigger than they are right now? I don't know. But I think we've got to explore that and not wait until we have a situation that none of us wants to see."
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN SWITCHING FROM YATES TO GIBBS? "The big thing was just the way the operations are run. This is one big operation that sends two different race cars at the race track on the weekend. When I was at Yates, it wasn't that way. It was two separate race teams with a common engine builder. I think here recently, they have tried to adapt some of these policies so they can get more like the Gibbs organization. It's a bigger structure than I'm used to. I have to try to get used to that. The thing about it is that you've got a lot of people trying to help you. They're trying to give you every piece that me and Bobby need to produce on Sunday. It's been a pretty fun time."
IS THERE MORE SHARING OF INFORMATION AT GIBBS THAN AT YATES? "I think it's a more open communication avenue. It's not anything really hidden. Any question you ask, no one really stumbles to give you an answer. They give you the answer immediately. But I think it's basically the way it's set up and the practices that's here in this whole organization. They're big on communication. They're big on teammates. And I think that's what has made them successful over the past five or six years."
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE A YOUNG TECHNICIAN ABOUT BECOMING A CREW CHIEF? "The best advice I could use is probably not the lesson you'd want to hear. And that's that nobody's going to give it to you. You've got to do a lot of work for nothing. You've got to take every opportunity you can to learn. Whether that's going with someone to a dirt track race or a short track race, just use every opportunity you can to learn. The more knowledge you gain and the more you're around the business, the more people you'll meet and the better you'll get so you can take that opportunity when it comes."
HAVE YOU STUDIED COMMUNICATION SKILLS OR HAVE YOU SIMPLY WORKED AT COMMUNICATING? "I was fortunate to grow up in a family where the things my dad's job required were a lot of communication skills. So, I pretty much got to learn that just from being around it my whole life. And then some of the people I've worked with over the years were good communicators. I just try to learn from everybody I'm around and learn from their mistakes and try not to make them myself."