Pontiac pit notes from Tuesday's Winston Teleconference. JOE GIBBS RACING FEATURE TranSouth Financial 400 Advance March 16, 1999 Note: Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte has reeled off three consecutive top-five finishes...
Pontiac pit notes from Tuesday's Winston Teleconference.
JOE GIBBS RACING FEATURE TranSouth Financial 400 Advance March 16, 1999
Note: Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte has reeled off three consecutive top-five finishes and is second in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings heading to Darlington Raceway for Sunday's TranSouth Financial 400. He aims to become the first driver in the modern era to win a race at Darlington in a Pontiac Grand Prix. Labonte, owner Joe Gibbs, and crew chief Jimmy Makar were guests on the Winston Teleconference. The following are selected quotes from the teleconference:
BOBBY LABONTE (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix): "We're awfully excited, everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. We've thought our plan out, what we've got to do. We've got to finish in the top-10 every weekend. The guys that run in front of us all the time, that's what they do. We've definitely had a great start to the season. It's my best start and I think it's theirs too. Hopefully, we're on the right track to keep the momentum going. "Jeff (Gordon) had a phenomenal year last year winning 13 races and he had all those top-fives and top-10s. They didn't fall out of many races. That's what you can't do. You can't fall out of many races and expect to finish in the top three in the championship. You have to be right there on top of it. It's hard to do. You're going to have a DNF or a bad race, but if you can make them as few as possible you're definitely better off."
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT WINSTON CUP DRIVERS COMPETING IN THE BUSCH SERIES? "It has been a controversy. I know when I ran the Busch Series in '90, '91 and '92, I ran my guts out to try and beat Harry Gant at Darlington. I finished second behind him. I learned a lot from them (Gant, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin). I kind of feel the same way now that Busch drivers can learn a lot from the Winston Cup guys running in it. This year there are more Winston cup drivers running than there probably used to be, but at the same time, only four years there were only 14 full-time Busch Series teams out there. Now there are teams that have two and three cars. It's kind of hard to say. Right now there's more Cup drivers than there used to be. Two years from now there will be less. It seems like it comes and goes. I read where Jeff Green and Dale Earnhardt Jr. liked to the Winston Cup guys running with them because they can learn more from them."
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE PARITY AMONG THE THREE MANUFACTURERS? "I think that things are pretty even myself. Of course, I'm going to say that. I feel like when I go to a place where I'm not as good at, I don't think it's the Pontiac. I think it's me not knowing what I need in the race car to tell the guys what to put underneath it to make me better to make the car faster. I think they're pretty close now. I'm sure they'll tell us more later (after the wind tunnel tests)."
YOU'VE GOT TWO POLES ALREADY. WHY DOES THIS TEAM EXCEL SO MUCH IN QUALIFYING? "Last year we had an average start of 13.-something. We were very happy with that. We could usually qualify in the first round and we didn't have to worry about re-qualifying. This year out of the four races, we've qualified in the top-10 all four times (Daytona by a qualifying race). I know that our engine program has stepped up this year. We've had some good horsepower. We've been right on top of things when it comes to qualifying. Last year we struggled on the open tracks and qualified well on the restrictor plate tracks. When we came to tracks like Las Vegas and Atlanta we weren't quite as good as some guys. This year we've gotten better and I know the engine guys have really helped out. I think our race cars are better. I can probably get more out of them when everything else is working good, too."
DOES YOUR DRIVING STYLE CHANGE BECAUSE OF DARLINGTON'S POOR TIRE WEAR? "I think that setup has a lot to do with it. It's obvious Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett and their cars can run faster longer on tires than I've been able to lately at Darlington. There is a key to that. It's what the driver is comfortable with on the chassis. Tire wear is excessive there and Rockingham. The things that you do to try and help it and make for better tire life and not wear one tire out over the other tire, it's more important there than anywhere else because it effects you faster there than anywhere else and your car backs up a lot quicker. It's the setup and the driver's feel to it. It's something the driver has to relay back to the crew, where he's hurting the most at and if he's abusing the tire in practice. It might not show up as much in practice as in the race, but if he's abusing it more it is really going to wear it out. At Darlington, there's not many lines to choose from. You run up against the wall most of the time anyway."
IS TONY STEWART KNOWLEDGEABLE ENOUGH TO HELP ON THE TWO-CAR TEAM SETUP YET? "I think there are things that we've been able to transfer back and forth. We weren't as good at Atlanta on Saturday afternoon. We don't run the exact same setups. If you look at their setup and our setup on a piece of paper, you think of things to try. Tony has a great feel for a race car and that's important. He's a rookie in Winston Cup, but he's not a rookie to racing. I think he's got a great feel for a race car and knows what the car is doing when he's right on. I'm sure the more experience he gets it will probably work out better for both of us."
WHY DON'T TWO TIRE STOPS WORK FOR YOU AS WELL AS JEFF GORDON? "It just never does. I know even before that (at Atlanta) my car wasn't quite as good. The temperature had gotten colder as the day wore on. I was a little tight before we took on two tires. I adjusted with air pressure thinking I had adjusted enough, but I didn't do enough. I should have adjusted more. I should have adjusted more on air pressure and the chassis to make up more for it. I was getting beat just a (little) anyway. Honestly, I've never had as much luck as other people putting on two tires. If we had done it in practice we probably would have learned more. I've never done it in practice just to practice it. I don't know what it will do until it happens and then it's too late. I think that's something I can work on personally and ask Jimmy about. At the time, it was disappointing because I was even worse than I thought I was going to be. It just seems like it never works for me."
TALK ABOUT THE IMMENSE AMOUNT OF CONCENTRATION IT TAKES TO DRIVE AT DARLINGTON. "It is unbelievable how close you run to the wall for 400 or 500 miles. It's kind of like driving on a sidewalk on a city street. You've got a wall on one side and people on the other side. It's very tight, very narrow, no room for error. It goes back to that saying from years ago where you have to race the race track. You have to have a lot of patience there. I ran a Daytona Dash Series race there one time and started 19th. I think Davey Allison was 20th and we didn't run but a few laps and something broke in the motor. I think those cars, as little as they were, I was thinking there was no way you could run a big Chevrolet, Pontiac or Ford around that race track. This was around '87, and it was more narrow then than it is now. I thought, 'How do people race here?' It was unbelievably narrow and tight. I was kind of glad it blew up because I thought, 'I don't think I can do this.'"
DESCRIBE YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH TONY STEWART. "He listens very well. He knows that he's in this thing as a rookie. At the same time, he's listening and observing and watching. From what I've seen, it looks like he's doing everything right. As far as me being a veteran, hopefully, I'm not a whole lot of a veteran because I haven't been around very long either, but there are things I've learned and if I can teach him so he doesn't have to go through the same learning curve, I do. I think he's very observant of what goes on on the race track and with the race cars."
IS WINNING AT DARLINGTON STILL AS PRESTIGIOUS AS IT USED TO BE? "I think so. I know (winning) the Busch race at Darlington was pretty exciting last year. But that's not all I wanted. I think winning at Darlington is such a big deal. When you look at the history books of all the race tracks and you look at Darlington, there's more pages there with all the prestige that goes behind it. I think Darlington is definitely one of those places where you want to have your name in the record book. When you do retire one day you'll say you wanted to win there. "I think running well at Darlington (this time) would be good for me. I'm not sure I have to win to be satisfied with a good run because we haven't run that good there lately. We've qualified decent, but can't get the handle on the race track because of tire wear. I think we're confident enough to go down there and run good this time just because of some things we've learned so far this year. A win would be the biggest thing that could happen to me because we've finished in the top-five in the last three races. I'm not sure I've done that a whole lot in my career. Four good ones would be really great. A win would be just terrific. We feel like we can start off on a little bit better foot there than we did last year. We're looking for big things."
JOE GIBBS, owner (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix): "We're thrilled about the start. Our race team has worked real hard going on eight years now to try and run for a championship. We have not taken that step where consistent every week we were there and putting ourselves in a position to win a championship. We finished sixth this last year. I think our emphasis has become to put ourselves in a position to win a championship. In order to do that, you've got to be there every week. I think it's been a great start for us. Whether we can continue that, I don't know. I think we've been the kind of team that can win a race, but to be there every week has been our goal this year. "You're never quite sure when you add somebody how the chemistry is going to work. They're (Bobby and Tony) just getting started. I think where you see a two-car team help is when you see all the information. Obviously, Tony has more tests because he's a rookie. When he goes somewhere and tests, the information comes back and it's something else for Jimmy to think about and sift through. There's another crew chief there for Jimmy to talk to now. We're still in the infant stages of building that two-car relationship. We're trying to do it a little differently. We're trying to keep everybody in the same shop. They all work side by side here and we're trying to develop that kind of chemistry. "I think anybody that has a multi-car team will tell you there are disadvantages, there definitely are. Obviously, you diffuse some of your concentration on one car. There are more problems. You've got more people and with more people are going to come more people problems. We hear of in-fighting and everything else on some multi-car teams. Yes, I think there are some definite disadvantages, but in our case, we looked at where NASCAR was headed and where we were headed and we said we wanted to try it. We thought it was our best chance to win a championship."
JIMMY MAKAR, crew chief (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix): "It was a long, hard winter. We added a second team, moved into a new shop and that put a lot of pressure on us to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. We were a little concerned about how we would be able to come out of the box this season. It's really been nice to come out and run well, and as a sidebar, have the second team run strong, too. We're fired up and the guys are really digging in and working hard every day now. "The goal is to run in the top-five every week. We want to run competitively and lead the races. We feel like if we can do that week in and week out the wins will come and by the end of the season the points championship will be something you're in contention for. Right now, the main focus of this shop is on Darlington. "The easiest thing to do (for morale) is run well every week. There's nothing better than these guys seeing their race car run up front. That's the biggest morale-booster we've got. Unfortunately, you don't always do that. We all go through times where the car doesn't perform well, so the next biggest thing is to give the guys some time to be at home with their families as often as we possibly can. We set up the work week where if there's nothing pressing, we give the guys some time off. When we get into the situations where we have to work real hard they realize it's something that's a necessity.
"Those guys (Jeff Gordon's team) are the benchmark. Over the last few years they've set standards most of us look at and try to achieve. We've had a good bit of success at Atlanta and we feel like we're the team to beat going in there. We did get beat by Jeff and that's a little tough. Getting beat by anybody is a little tough. Those are one of those tracks where we'd never had to worry about him before. He had struggled a little bit there and he wasn't one of the (drivers) you had to worry about. Obviously, they did their homework and they picked up a weakness that they'd had and worked on it and made it OK for them. It looks like we'll have to contend with him at Atlanta from now on. You don't get too focused on any one team. Those guys are going to win a lot of races and we know that, but we've got 39 or 40 other race teams we've got to beat every week, too."