Labonte recharges batteries By Brett Borden NEW YORK (Nov. 29, 1998) Slowly but surely, Bobby Labonte keeps inching his way towards a first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. In 1997, he finished a career-best seventh in the final point ...
Labonte recharges batteries By Brett Borden
NEW YORK (Nov. 29, 1998) Slowly but surely, Bobby Labonte keeps inching his way towards a first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. In 1997, he finished a career-best seventh in the final point standings. This year, he went one better, winning two races in Joe Gibbs' No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac on the way to a sixth-place final finish.
Unlike the two seasons prior to 1998, Labonte didn't wait until the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway to post his first victory of the year. He did win at Atlanta, but this year it was in the PRIMESTAR 500, the fourth race of the season.
"I told the guys I didn't want to wait until the last race of the season to win this year, and here we are in Victory Lane at Atlanta," said Labonte after that race.
Labonte had almost won the season-opening Daytona 500 as well. Dale Earnhardt's magical moment in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway may not have come off if a late caution didn't come out. Labonte, who had earned the Bud Pole Award, was making a strong run at "The Intimidator," but had to settle for second.
What made the opener that much more tantalizing was the Winston "No Bull 5" million-dollar bonus that Labonte could have taken home. Labonte came into Daytona as one of five drivers eligible to take home the big bonus in the new five-race program. He didn't get it, but runner-up honors were good enough to qualify him for the next selected race -- the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Before that race came around, Labonte took the checkered flag in Atlanta and also at Talladega Superspeedway, in the DieHard 500. Labonte won from the Bud Pole in a race he took from brother Terry in the late stages.
"Jeff Gordon was making a move right and left, and right and left, and when he went wide, I stayed with Terry," said Bobby. "Then with two to go, I made a move on the outside of Terry and got a run, and Jimmy Spencer helped me. Then it was just a matter of making the Interstate Batteries Pontiac as wide as possible."
Labonte's race-winning smile was pretty wide, and his second chance at the No Bull 5 bonus would come two races later. Unfortunately, Labonte would finish third behind Gordon and Rusty Wallace in the Coca-Cola 600. Fortunately, it was good enough for yet another chance at the bonus in the next selected race -- the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
With two victories and two Bud Pole Awards under his belt, Labonte came to Indianapolis ready to challenge his reputation of coming up flat on flat tracks. Again, however, he would finish third, this time behind Gordon and Mark Martin. If he was getting frustrated, he wasn't letting it show.
"We came up a little too short, but that's OK," he said. "We ran really good today. Last year we didn't have as great a race car and we ended up second through fuel mileage. We hung in the top-eight, top-five most of the day. A few cars that were quicker than we were had trouble so we ended up third. That's kind of the way it goes."
Deuces were wild for Bobby in the second race of the year held at Michigan Speedway, the Pepsi 400 presented by DeVilbiss. Labonte qualified second and finished second on a track where he had won both races in 1995.
His next shot at the bonus would come five races later, in the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. This time, he would finish well off the pace, in 15th, making it the first time in five tries he had not made himself eligible for the next race in the Winston No Bull 5 program.
The season would feature one more bright spot for Labonte. It came in a rare two-race superspeedway stretch. Due to "wildfires," the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway was postponed until October, one week after the Winston 500 at Talladega. Following a sixth-place finish from the outside pole at Talladega, Labonte finished second (after starting from the Bud Pole) in the inaugural nighttime running of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Just like at Michigan, Labonte was runner-up to Gordon.
All in all, 1998 was a very good year for Bobby Labonte. Two victories, a career-high 11 top-five finishes, and 18 top-10s as well. He didn't get that season-ending victory at Atlanta, in fact he finished last, but he took care of business earlier in the year, and with the addition of a teammate (Tony Stewart) at Joe Gibbs Racing in 1999, the Interstate Batteries Pontiac is charging towards a championship.
Source: NASCAR Online