Labonte sees light at tunnel's end By Marty Smith HARRISBURG, N.C. (Jan. 25, 2000) By winning four consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships between 1995 and '98, Hendrick Motorsports established itself as the most dominant stock car...
Labonte sees light at tunnel's end By Marty Smith
HARRISBURG, N.C. (Jan. 25, 2000) By winning four consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships between 1995 and '98, Hendrick Motorsports established itself as the most dominant stock car racing organization of the decade. And believe it or not, they could've been better had the three teams collaborated a bit more.
Thus, the plan heading into NASCAR 2000 is just that -- work as one unit with the common goal of snatching the title trophy back from Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing.
In 1999, Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte both slipped in the standings -- Gordon from first to sixth and Labonte from ninth to 12th, marking the first time since 1993 the "Ironman" failed to qualify for a run across the stage at the series banquet in New York. Obviously, a change was in order.
"One thing I think is going to be a little bit different is I think the three teams are going to work a little bit closer than they have been in the past," said Labonte, the 1984 and '96 champion. "I'll admit that a few years we didn't even speak to each other much. So you know I think that's going to be a big plus for us. The people we have now are working together, talking to each other and I think that's going to be a big help for us.
"But you know, it's going to be a tough season -- the competition is tough. Everybody's always looking for the right combination that they need and everybody makes changes and things to try to get the right people there and we're no different. We've done the same things so we feel like we've got a great group of guys there now."
Among the new employees at Hendrick are Robbie Loomis, who replaced Ray Evernham apprentice Brian Whitesell as Gordon's crew chief, and Gary DeHart, who took over the reigns of the No. 5 Kellogg's Corn Flakes team prior to crew chief Andy Graves' departure. Loomis is a veteran crew chief, who most recently directed the No. 43 STP Pontiac at Petty Enterprises. Whitesell, meanwhile, has been promoted to team manager.
DeHart could be the key to the whole deal, however. He and Labonte have a storied relationship that includes Labonte's only two championships, the first in 1984 with Hagan Racing and the second in 1996 with Hendrick. The duo plans to return that championship form to the shop in NASCAR 2000, starting with a stellar showing at the "Great American Race."
"It's nice to get off to a good start at Daytona," Labonte said. "It's really nice to have a good run down there. It's the biggest race that we run all year long. We put a lot of preparation into it. The guys work awful hard on the speedway cars, and it's a hard race to win.
"Everybody goes down and they're probably better prepared for that race than they are for any of the other races throughout the season. It's a tough race, it's a boost to your team to go down there and run good, I think, but it doesn't break your season if you don't have a good run."
Under Graves' tutelage, Labonte enjoyed minimal success at Daytona, posting a runner-up finish to Gordon in 1997, when Hendrick teams swept the top-3 in the race; a 13th-place run in 1998; and a 38th-place effort last season. But, that doesn't mean much to the Texas native -- he finished 40th in '96 when he won the championship.
He's more concerned with righting the course of his No. 5 Chevrolet team, which has slipped from its once-contending stature. Last season marked the first time since 1991 he failed to finish in the top-10 at least 10 times. He won in marvelous fashion at Texas Motor Speedway in March, but didn't crack the top-5 again all season.
This year, all of that will likely change. Why not -- the rest of the Hendrick complexion has. It's time, Labonte says.
"Well there have been a lot of changes there and we've got a lot of new faces, not only on our car but on Jeff's car and the 25 also," Labonte said of new teammate Jerry Nadeau's Michael Holigan Chevrolet. "So, I don't know what'll happen."