Strong spring has Labonte ready for Sharpie 500

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   BRISTOL -- Despite having several of racing's biggest prizes, including the Winston Cup championship, Bobby Labonte had the reputation of someone you didn't have to worry about on the short tracks.
   He changed that last season with his first win on the half-mile at Martinsville and further bolstered his status with a third-place finish at Bristol's Food City 500 in March.
   "Racing around here at the speeds we got now is unbelievably fast," said the driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac, during a promotional appearance for the upcoming Sharpie 500 at BMS. "Anything can happen so quickly.
   "It's like that truck race last night with Kevin Harvick. The right front tire blew and he was in the fence."
   This season has been a terrific year overall for Labonte, already registering one win at Atlanta and four pole positions.
   "2003 has been great for us," said Labonte. "We seemed to have hit a little string of bad luck, so maybe Bristol will be a place to turn our luck around.
   "We have been in the top ten in points and snuck into the top five for a while. We have a great race team, great race cars and a great program. I usually don't believe in racing luck, but I believe we've had our share of bad luck in the last few races."
   The success wasn't much of a surprise to the former champ after bringing in crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain late last season.
   "It was a big thing that we really hit it off so well," said Labonte, whose Atlanta win was his sixth at the speedway. "When he was consultant to the team last year, he was already seeing things that we needed to work on.
   "We just hit on the right combination. That's hard to find and do and to keep it that way. We spent all day yesterday doing things that weren't involved with racing. We enjoy each other's company and the chemistry is there to have a good time."
   Labonte took a traditional path of moving up the racing ladder. He started out as a youngster racing quarter midgets in Texas. Later he worked on a pit crew for older brother Terry and started driving Late Model Stock cars in North Carolina.
   "When people used to ask me what I should do to become involved in racing, I used to say, 'Well, work on a race team, go to a local short track and learn the ropes there,'" said Labonte. "You need to know your race car.
   "Nowadays if I was talking to someone wanting to drive a car, I might tell them to know something about a race car, but maybe not everything like I have tried to do. I might tell them to go to school and get an engineering degree. I might recommend that today over 15 years ago."
   The senior driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte says he enjoys a good relationship with controversial teammate Tony Stewart, although he admits with he having a family and Stewart living a single life, the two rarely hang out away from the track.
   For Labonte, he can put up credentials favorably against almost any racer on the planet. Bobby is the only driver to own both a Winston Cup and Busch Series title.
   He also is a former IROC Champion, has won three of NASCAR's four "majors" and even has a park in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas named after he and older brother Terry. Still Bristol isn't a place that respects what you have done elsewhere.
   "It's kind of like Daytona or Talladega, restrictor-plate type racing," said Labonte, who was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 along with his brother and Troy Aikman. "Anything happens around you and you could be involved in it.
   "Take Michigan for instance, there were some accidents there, but it didn't affect people back in the pack. Here you can be 15th in the line or first in line and still be in a crash. Here is one of the places you might worry about more than Michigan, where we raced last week."
   Speaking of last weekend, Bobby didn't even avoid the subject of the recent Jimmy Spencer-Kurt Busch incident. He was asked if the penalty served to Spencer made it better for a guy to wreck someone on the track which could be potentially more dangerous than to punch someone.
   "What happens away from the track is one thing," said Labonte. "If you do it on the track and it doesn't look intentional, nobody knows as long as you don't say anything about it. It may have closed one can of worms, but opened up another can of worms."
   Another subject from last weekend, the race being decided again by fuel mileage and track position, was also tackled by Labonte.
   "When you throw track position, aero and fuel mileage in, Darlington and Rockingham may be places we don't have to worry about that," said Labonte. "The tires give up grip on the asphalt, so you have to pit for tires.
   "Obviously we all still run wide open, but in the unforeseen future this is how we are having to race, the fuel mileage racing."
   It's doubtful fuel mileage will come into play this weekend, but it is possible. 2001 Bristol winner Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch last season each stretched their fuel mileage to gain track position.
   For Labonte, if that is what he has to do or if there are other means for winning, it's fine to him. After all, he is one of the threats to now every time NASCAR visits the short tracks.