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 LABONTE HOPES TO SKATE TO WIN AT DAYTONA 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 numbers. "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.