- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001


Joe Gibbs' pacesetting Pontiac team has a dilemma others might wish for: What can a champion do for an encore after his team wins $11 million and has been to Disney World?

"Wake up, do it again. Second is really not that much fun after you've tried first," says Bobby Labonte who clinched last season's $3.4 million Winston Cup championship check with one race still to go.

Labonte, 36 and starting his 11th season, is a humble and polite guy, but that doesn't make him reluctant to predict a repeat of a season in which he won $7,428,386 while Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart brought in another $3,640,948.

Labonte vetoed braggart T-shirts for his crew, saying he didn't want to seem "too cocky" at least until Daytona is behind him and he picks up the kind of victory that justifies cockiness.

"Once you've done it, you want to do it again," Labonte said during an interview in which he voiced doubts that a win in Sunday's Daytona 500 would help that goal along. He said Daytona victories can trigger distractions all season long, and require a crew that has mastered the restrictor-plate techniques used at only two tracks.

Asked if he expects to overcome those obstacles and win anyway, Labonte replied, "It's hard to do."

Prominent on the list of those expected to challenge the champ this season is Stewart, 29, who wouldn't rule out a Daytona 500 victory for himself in his third year of NASCAR racing.

Stewart won six of last season's 34 races, two more than anyone else, and spent many a weeknight during the season racing for virtually nothing at small tracks around the country.

But he fell out of Winston Cup contention by failing the sport's "consistency" test, which rewards finishes near the front more than it does individual victories in major races.

Winning the Daytona 500 or any other race gives no special boost in points, but placing in the top five week after week does pay off. Labonte finished every race and had 19 top-five finishes in 34 races. Stewart wiped out in five races and finished only 12 in the top five.

"The point system's fine the way it is," Stewart insists, refusing to be drawn into the ongoing debate. He blames youthful impatience and inexperience in stock cars for holding him back.

"I'm just going to try to race a little smarter, try to stay on the track and not wreck," he said, noting that he was involved in wrecks in three of the five races he failed to finish last year.

Just how can he be smarter?

"A whole lot of things, but I'm not letting anybody know about it," he said.

Stewart wasn't racing smarter yesterday when he wrecked again on lap 35 of the second 50-lap qualifying race in Sunday's $11 million 500-miler.

With particularly bad timing while running in sixth place, Stewart pulled in front of Elliott Sadler's Ford. Sadler slammed into him, spinning both cars out of the pack.

Stewart made a quick pit stop to unwrinkle sheet metal and take on a tank of gas and four more tires, then went back out and finished 11th.

Labonte, who has an automatic spot in the Daytona 500, declined to press his luck while his car was spattered with oil. He finished 19th and decided the race was a lost opportunity to learn more about his car.

"Today was just kind of a test deal," Labonte said. "There were a couple of cars leaking oil, and we got oil on the windshield a couple of times. We couldn't hardly race just because of that."

After last season, Gibbs put the Winston Cup trophy in a showcase with three Vince Lombardi trophies from the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl victories and put the money in the bank. He says he's going to leave this season to a higher power.

"I just hope there's some way that we can use this championship to honor God," Gibbs said, expressing amazement that he is among what he calls "just average people" who share such tremendous experiences.

"When we went to Interstate Batteries, we had a dream. We didn't have a driver, we didn't have a car," said Gibbs, who is known in the garages for motivating teams with money, idealism and a lot of the religion he and Interstate chairman Norm Miller wear on their sleeve.

How do you win? "Get great people and ride their coattails," said Gibbs, who credits last season's "dream year" to good chemistry among crew chief Jimmy Makar's team of 125 people who back the two cars.

Gibbs took them all to New York Stewart's team as well for the banquet honoring Labonte's championship season. While that was good for morale, money also plays a big part in the low turnover at the Gibbs shop.

"We have a big bonus program," he said. "When we win races, everybody wins. That's a huge part of it. They're all invested in it."

Labonte says he is a big fan of the cooperation between his Interstate car 18 team and Stewart's Home Depot car 20, but only up to a point.

"We don't hold anything back until we get on the racetrack," he said.

Labonte and others expect a serious challenge from Jeff Burton, but Labonte thinks Stewart's orange car may be the one in his rearview mirror.

"I'm not playing favorites when I say Tony Stewart," Labonte said. Stewart won Sunday's Budweiser Shootout, fending off Dale Earnhardt on the last lap after running away from Labonte, who helped him get through traffic.

Labonte says he approved.

"Sometimes you have to make a move to get by somebody. Otherwise both of you are going to the back," Labonte said.

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