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NASCAR Winston Cup Pepsi 400 Preview -- #18, Bobby Labonte

1 July 1997

 #18 Bobby Labonte, Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix
 NASCAR Winston Cup Series
 Pepsi 400 Advance
 Daytona International Speedway


DAYTONA BEACH, FL - The annual July pilgrimage to Daytona International 
Speedway promises sweltering conditions of 90-plus degrees, but Interstate 
Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte likens the Pepsi 400 to NASCAR Winston 
Cup's version of an ice skating race.

The scorching heat produces a slick 2.5-mile superspeedway, putting a premium 
on handling. Notes from the season-opening Daytona 500 offer little help in 
deciphering a chassis setup because track conditions are as much as 40 
degrees hotter.

"It's a lot more slippery at Daytona in July, so you want more downforce on 
the car," Labonte said. "The first time I came to Daytona you could run wide 
open around there in a Busch car. It really wasn't too hard to drive. It was 
like you were on a rail. It's like you derailed when you come back down here 
and race in July. I remember the first time I ran down here during the 
summer. I went out, and they asked me how much I had to let off.  I said I 
had to let off a whole lot. It was a lot different than I thought it was 
going to be."

After two consecutive crashes that sent him falling to seventh in the point 
standings, Labonte is back on track with two-straight top-10 finishes. He was 
ninth at Michigan, and followed that with a sixth-place run in the inaugural 
race at California. At this time last season, Labonte and the Joe Gibbs 
Racing team stood 17th in the point standings. Despite the improvement, 
Labonte is hoping for more. He has ranked as high as third in the point 
standings this year.

In the Daytona 500, Labonte largely struggled.  By the end of the race he was 
zeroing in on a top-10 run, but was collected in a late wreck that relegated 
him to a 21st-place finish. In his next restrictor-plate start, Labonte 
finished third in the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, running with 
the leaders throughout the race.

"We're going to use the same Pontiac we finished third in at Talladega," 
Labonte said. "At Daytona, we were OK, but we didn't do all the right things 
to maximize the potential of the car. At Talladega, we did things the way 
we're supposed to, and we showed up a lot better."

Part of the reason is that Gibbs is sparing no expense in upgrading the 
team's restrictor plate program. The team has an addition to the engine 
department this year, Joe Hornick, whose sole responsibility is working on 
restrictor plate motors. After struggling in restrictor plate races last 
year, Labonte has seen much improvement in horsepower.

"Restrictor plate engine development is so exhaustive," Labonte said. "That's
why so many teams hire someone outside their operations just to work on 
restrictor plate engines. Joe wanted a guy in-house, and I think that's made 
a big improvement in our overall program. Near a race, it's like he's on that 
engine dyno 24 hours a day. After the race was postponed at Talladega, he did 
some more tinkering with the engine and we picked up even more horsepower, 
and that really spelled the difference at Talladega. We've gotten things 
better by tuning the engine to the car. You can be off just a little bit and 
it will really make it a long race."

While Labonte appears better prepared than ever for the Pepsi 400, he knows 
there's a big task ahead. In nine career starts at Daytona, Labonte's best 
finish is only 16th. He's never finished better than 22nd in the Pepsi 400.

But his strong run at Talladega has Labonte optimistic despite the 

"We were really pretty good from the start at Talladega," Labonte said. "We 
got shuffled back a couple of times, but that's better than getting shuffled 
back a lot. It's important we get in a good qualifying run, and just work on 
the car so it sticks to the track. It may be slippery as ice at Daytona in 
July, but you still don't want to be on a sled."

By Camp & Associates, Inc.