Labonte "Relaxed" for Darlington

"Relaxed" Labonte set for Darlington Shawn A. Akers - NASCAR Online FLORENCE, S.C. (March 19, 1998) Bobby Labonte doesn't have to hold his breath until the end of the season in 1998. His victory in the PRIMESTAR 500 at Atlanta Motor...

"Relaxed" Labonte set for Darlington Shawn A. Akers - NASCAR Online

FLORENCE, S.C. (March 19, 1998) Bobby Labonte doesn't have to hold his breath until the end of the season in 1998. His victory in the PRIMESTAR 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks ago took care of that.

And now that he and the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team already have a win behind them this season, they can breathe just a little easier than they have the past two years, when they waited until the final race to get to Victory Lane.

Not that the team will relax and rest on its laurels, but the pressure to get a win won't be hanging over their heads for the rest of the season.

"I'll tell you, it's awfully exciting for the team," Labonte said. "We've got a lot of momentum now. That last two years, we won the last race. Talk about putting your head in a vise, that's what we had. We had our head in a vise to win the last race.

"So this takes a lot of pressure off us. You wouldn't believe how much easier it's going to be for us to enjoy the rest of the season knowing that we've already got a win and knowing the pressure won't be there to try and win a race for the rest of the year."

In 1996, Labonte failed to win a race until the final outing of the year, the NAPA 500 at Atlanta. The same thing happened again in 1997.

Labonte's victory two weeks ago came in the fourth race in 1998.

Labonte will attempt to become the first Pontiac driver to win a race at Darlington since Joe Weatherly did it in 1963. He was surprised to find out that it had been that long.

"I think that's more than I wanted to know," Labonte said when he was informed of that fact. "I wasn't born until '64, so that isn't my fault. No, seriously, I really think the Pontiac is going to do good this year. I feel like the race teams have gotten stronger, and I know we've shown a lot of improvement. There are a lot of drivers who run good here, and a lot of them are driving Pontiacs. We'll just have to wait and see. I like our chances, though, because we're carrying a lot of momentum into this race."

Labonte won the pole for last fall's Southern 500 at Darlington. He wound up finishing seventh, and was fifth in last year's TranSouth Financial 400.

In order to get to Victory Lane at the track "Too Tough to Tame," Labonte will have to deal with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. Gordon has won four of the last five races at Darlington Raceway, including the 1996 TranSouth Financial 400, and Jarrett won last year's TranSouth Financial 400 from the Bud Pole.

"Those two right there, they are the ones who have won the most recent races here, so you would think that they're the hands-down favorites," Labonte said. "A lot of people have said to me, 'you've got Atlanta figured out. I've just done at Atlanta where Jeff Gordon has done just about everywhere else. When you come to Darlington, Jeff is a figure that you've got to worry about.

"Jeff Burton, too, is a guy, where he hasn't won here yet, but he's just waiting to win. It's going to be anytime. So it's going to be tough to win here, that's for sure."

In addition to his duties in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac, Labonte will also get behind the wheel of a NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division car for the first time this season at Darlington. He'll substitute for Tony Stewart in the Joe Gibbs No. 44 Shell Oil Pontiac, a car he owned until prior to this season, in the Diamond Hill Plywood 200. Stewart has a commitment to his Indy Racing League team this weekend, allowing Labonte a chance to drive the NASCAR Busch Series car again.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart