Pontiac Racing B. Labonte, Maker pre-Homestead interview

Pontiac Teammates Seek Continued Domination of Homestead DETROIT, Nov. 6, 2001 - During the first two Winston Cup races held at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999 and 2000, two Pontiac Grand Prix drivers dominated the field. This weekend, those...

Pontiac Teammates Seek Continued Domination of Homestead

DETROIT, Nov. 6, 2001 - During the first two Winston Cup races held at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999 and 2000, two Pontiac Grand Prix drivers dominated the field. This weekend, those same two drivers return to Homestead and are hoping for more of the same.

In their first two south Florida runs, Pontiac teammates Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte have combined to score four top four finishes, including a pair of wins by Stewart and a second and fourth by Labonte. The two drivers have led 386 of the 534 total laps runs on the 1.5-mile oval during its first two years on the schedule.

Tuesday morning, Labonte and his crew chief Jimmy Makar talked with the media during the weekly NASCAR Winston Cup teleconference. The two discussed a variety of topics, including their 2000 Winston Cup championship, this weekend's race at Homestead and the 2001 season, in general.

Thoughts From Bobby Labonte
No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix:

ON YOU AND TONY STEWART BEING SO GOOD AT HOMESTEAD "After hearing the average finish of the two of us there over the past two years, it looks like I'm the one that needs to bring it up a little bit. "Tony has dominated the past two races. I think his strong point of running well on a flat track, and probably the increasing changes in the race cars and tires and 'whatnot,' he has been able to adapt to it better than we did, so I have to rely a lot on him on our race team to hopefully get better. If we don't hit the right combination we usually have somebody to fall back on and it's them."

HOW DO YOU FEEL FLAT TRACKS SUIT YOU? "A few years ago, we were like, 'We'll never run good on a flat track. Then two years ago, we ran better on flat tracks than anything else. It just depends on what our situation is with our setup. We've been on it and not quite as good at times and real bad at other times. We're still in the middle. We're not really bad, but we're not as good as we'd like to be. I still think we can go down there and win, but we've got to get everything lined up just right."

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET A FAST LAP AT HOMESTEAD? "That is really a tricky place to race on. It's a neat place because it is so flat. But, it's tricky because you can overdrive the corner. If you push up a little bit in the center of the corner, or getting in, you miss your mark a little bit, it takes a lot of time away. You really have to be smooth and stay right on the bottom of the racetrack because that is the fast way around there. You might let it drift up a little bit in the center of the corner, but that is about it. You just really have to be smooth and at the same time, you have to be aggressive on the throttle to get a lot of speed down the straightaway. But if you get too aggressive, you can break loose and if you do that, then you lose a lot of time and vice-versa - if you push you lose a lot of time. To get a perfect lap there, it is so precise. It's not like, for instance, Rockingham. Last weekend, we got a good lap in and it didn't feel as good, but it was better than a lap earlier that felt good. You really have to hustle it up, but you can't overdrive it that much either."

HOW COMPETITIVE DO YOU FEEL THE PONTIACS ARE ON THE FLAT TRACKS? "I think we've just got to get our combinations right and our balance right, more than anything, before we can say anything about where we're at and where we're not at because that is not up to us to really say. It's up to NASCAR to be the ones that decide that. "We feel like if we can get everything right that we'll be competitive. If everything is not right - and that includes aero balance and aero matching - then we're not quite as good, either. "The other day down there Tony was fast, so I feel like our Pontiacs can be good if we get everything right."

REFLECT ON YOUR YEAR AS THE WINSTON CUP CHAMPION "This year has been exciting after last year. We were pretty busy throughout the year last year, running in the top two and a lot of the time in the lead in the point standings, so that kept you busy. Pretty much week in and week out, people want to know what you're doing that week. "But, this year has been exciting. It's been a little tough for us. We haven't quite run as good as we'd like to. But, we feel confident that we're getting back on track at times and we feel like we're heading back towards the end of the year, looking forward to next year. "Last year, going to Homestead was exciting - going down there thinking we had a shot at it. Jeff [Gordon] has done this deal before. It was my first time, so it will probably be different for him. But it's a neat way to capitalize. If he can accomplish winning the championship this year a race or two ahead of the end of the season, it's quite an accomplishment for their team, just like it was with us. That means a lot because your race team as a whole is prepared for the season from the first race to the last."

ON HAVING A CHAMPIONSHIP TO YOUR CREDIT "That's cool. Terry [Labonte] and I have both done it now. Even though this year we're aren't going to win the championship, but knowing that we had it last year - we're a previous champion and it gives us confidence to hopefully do it again."

HAS THIS YEAR BEEN A DROP-OFF AT ALL FOR JOE GIBBS RACING? "I think it is, obviously. But Tony is third in points and has a really good shot to be second if everything goes his way, so that's not going to be anything to sneeze at because that's quite an accomplishment. "For the most part, for the whole season, I can't complain about it. After last year, it's all a lot of hard work like it was last year, but you've got to keep your nose to the grindstone and keep going."

ON YOUR ADAPTABILITY TO THE NEW TIRES THIS YEAR "As far as my part goes, obviously there are other guys that have accomplished that a lot better than me. It was funny last weekend - Jeff Gordon - they missed the setup a little bit and didn't run as well as they'd like to. I was like, 'Well, one [race] out of 36.' I wish I could have had a better average. But those guys have done like what we did the year before and even the year before that. This year I've still struggled to explain what the car is doing sometimes. I wouldn't say that's been my strong point, but that's what I always like to do and try to help to find the right idea to fix it instead of just saying, 'Well, it's just doing this or that.' When I'm trying to find the right idea to fix it and I don't know what to fix it with, it kind of throws me for a curve. It has been a struggle, but I can't complain about it because that is just the way it is."

HOW DO THESE TIRES DIFFER FROM LAST YEAR? "They are a harder compound. I don't know if it's just because of that or if it's some of the construction changes that we have and some of the tracks we go to the tire is taller than it was last year. That gives me a false feeling of what the car is doing and doesn't react back to my hands like I need for it to. The combination of that and just the competition getting better might make it harder when we think we have something to fix it with. Maybe there are 10 different things and we haven't found the right thing yet. "They incline to slide more and sometimes they roll over more, too. It kind of depends what track you're at and what week it is."

Thoughts From Jimmy Makar, Crew Chief,
No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix:

HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FOR YOU SINCE YOU CLINCHED THE WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONSHIP AT HOMESTEAD LAST YEAR? "Well, we're not going into Miami thinking about the championship, that's for sure. That's one big difference. "What a difference a year makes? You hear it all the time. We were on top of the world at this point last year. Everything was going our way and things were looking great. It seems like a long time ago right now. We seemed to have gone through a slump here in the past year. It seems like last year we couldn't do anything wrong, even when things tried to go wrong we were able to salvage good finishes and keep from having major problems all throughout the year. We'd get home and find motors with parts ready to break that didn't and things on the car that could have caused a problem that did not - just lots of little things like that that when you're in the groove and things are going right, you just have that feeling and confidence - I think that's the big thing - that you're going to be able to overcome any little obstacle that comes your way. This year has been quite the opposite. It seems like now, even when we're really good, something is going to happen to rain on our parade. It's happened several times this year already and the last time was this weekend at Rockingham. We had a very good race car, one that was capable of winning the race, and we get a caution flag at the most inopportune moment and don't have a chance to try to win. That pretty much sums up our season, with that kind of a situation.

"The thing about it is, this is an up-and-down business. You can be on top of the world one day and on the bottom the next. You certainly don't think this is going to last forever. Everybody goes through slumps and times when things don't go the way they want to. We certainly are looking forward to the last three races of the season. We've got a lot to race for still. Obviously, we're not racing for a championship, but at least another wins this year and we're in a pretty tight battle for sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth in points. Sixth is certainly within our reach with three good races left, so we've got a lot to race for and a lot to look forward to. Certainly when the season is over and done and we start 2002, we're going to be thinking championship and winning three or four races throughout the course of the year, for sure."

OVER THE COURSE OF THIS SEASON, HOW MUCH HAS THE DEATH OF DALE EARNHARDT AFFECTED THE VETERANS IN THIS SPORT? "I think it has affected everybody - not just the veterans - but even the people that are not veterans in the sport. And not only Dale, but we've had quite a few drivers that have died in the last two years - I think that affects everyone. I know ourselves here at Joe Gibbs Racing, we've probably focused a lot more on safety and what we could do to make cars safer for our drivers and have been working with NASCAR, trying to do the same thing. That is in the back of your mind all the time. Certainly, I would expect every driver, no matter how macho or tough they are, in the back of their minds, they think about those things and you can't get away from them. Everyone has got a family at home to think about. It's just a part of life that I don't think anybody can get away from."

HOW TOUGH HAS THIS SEASON BEEN FOR BOBBY? "Everybody handles adversity in a different way. I've had a thing around here that says that 'adversity brings out the true character in people.' I've been able to watch everybody's reaction to how we've been able to do. Really, Bobby has fought hard all year long. He hasn't given up. Obviously, he has gotten frustrated, just like the rest of us, but never has given up his attempt to overcome the things that we've had to do. I think hopefully that is because he is around a group of people that has a lot of belief in him and his abilities. We are just going through a time that a lot of people have gone through. We've seen Dale Earnhardt go through it, we've seen other great race car drivers go through it. We're looking to come out the other end of it an even stronger race team than we were by not having to go through this."

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH BOBBY? "I think Bobby and I have a great relationship. It's a very honest, open relationship, as far as being able to talk about things that are going on. We've had several conversations throughout the year where just the two of us have sat down and talked openly about what we feel about each other and what we need to do in constructive ways - obviously not in confrontational or destructive ways. Bobby takes criticism very, very well and hopefully I do. Those are the kinds of things that you've got to be able to work through. Bobby and I have never sat down and had harsh words with each other that we'd have to go back and take back a day later. I've got much more respect for him as a person to be able to do those kinds of things. Like I said, we've got a great working relationship and a great personal relationship. It's like I've told him many times, he's my horse and we're going to ride him to the finish. I believe in him and I believe in his abilities in what he can do as a race car driver."

DOES BOBBY TAKE A LOT OF THE BLAME FOR THE STRUGGLES WITH THE NEW TIRES? "I think he does and I think every driver does. It's pretty obvious that the way that Goodyear has brought tires this year to the racetrack has really thrown a curveball to most of the drivers. Some have been able to work through it a little better than others. But really it is on the drivers' shoulders. They're the ones that have to feel their race cars and do their job based on how the car is sticking to the race track. Most of them have had to change their driving style a little bit to adapt and it's been easier for some of the guys than others. I can think of half a dozen guys off the top of my head that have been in the past, great racers every week, week-in and week-out, that have struggled all year long. I think it's nothing more than not being able to adjust their style and their abilities to work through this tire. We're certainly much better than we were at the beginning of the year on it, but still have a long way to go. But it's a combination of driver adjustment and me as a crew chief to change our race cars around to make it more comfortable for the driver to be able to go out and race."

DOES THIS TIRE HAVE A VERY SMALL 'SWEET SPOT?' "It certainly seems that way. We were talking earlier today, even about guys that seem like they have got it figured out. They can go two or three races and look like everything is going just fine and then show up and be totally out in left field all of a sudden. It makes for a pretty exciting race as far as never knowing who is going to be able to run up front and who is not. It is very frustrating as a competitor to not be able to get a handle on that and be able to have the confidence week-in and week-out of knowing what changes are going to affect the car. That's what we do. We figure things out and you use the same basic changes every week, once you know what the car reacts to. We get into that where we think we figured it out, we know this change makes this effect. It may work for two or three weeks and then all of a sudden you throw it all out the window and it's not working again. It's very frustrating as a competitor to not have the consistency of being able to make changes that make sense to us."

WILL THE ONE ENGINE RULE ACTUALLY SAVE TEAMS MONEY? "It will save teams money, for sure. The flipside of that is, the money we save, we're not going to put in the bank and collect interest on, we're going to put it in other parts of our race team and try to be better. It'll just move the money around a little bit. We'll still spend what we have trying to go faster and make the cars better

"It does save, but it just allows us to do other things that we might not be able to do right now. But I do think it's a good idea. It's certainly going to give you the ability to be competitive without having to spend all that money on engines and do the development work we're going now and those types of things. I think in the long run, you're going to have the ability to choose to spend your money where you want instead of feeling like you have to spend it all on your engine program. I don't think anything is going to suffer because of it. We'll still see good strong engines and we'll be able to do R&D work like we need to. I applaud it. I think it's a good idea. It'll help our engine room cut back a little bit and spend more time racing."

-Pontiac Racing-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing