NASCAR Winston Cup Series NAPA 500 Preview: #18, Bobby Labonte
12 November 1997
#18 Bobby Labonte, Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR Winston Cup Series NAPA 500 Advance Atlanta Motor Speedway LABONTE NEARS CHECKERED FLAG OF BEST-EVER SEASON HAMPTON, GA - Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver Bobby Labonte will put the wraps on his best-ever NASCAR Winston Cup season in Sunday's NAPA 500 at the reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. He hopes to end the season the same way he concluded last year, with a victory in the last race of the season. "That was the most memorable day I ever had in my career," Labonte said. "My brother clinched his second Winston Cup championship, and I won my first race of the season from the pole. That's hard to beat that." Labonte and the Joe Gibbs Racing team are always strong at Atlanta. Labonte finished fourth in the March race there, and should be among the favorites for victory this time around. Buoying his confidence is the fact the team conducted the Goodyear tire test at Atlanta last month. The track was lengthened recently to 1.54 miles, giving it a tri-oval shape similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Speeds have risen dramatically, and tire wear is a problem for some teams. Not Labonte's. "I'm glad we did the tire test down there," Labonte said. "It's a lot faster, and figuring out the right chassis combinations to make your tires last longer is going to be a big key in the race. We think we found some answers." Test speeds reached in excess of 193 mph, some seven miles per hour faster than Robby Gordon's track qualifying record set in March. Concluding the season on a speedy note seems to be only fitting for Labonte. He will likely finish the year a career-best seventh in the point standings. Labonte is tied with Mark Martin for the most poles this season with three. Labonte has eight top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, coupled with $1,784,639 in earnings -- all career highs. He's one of only four drivers to have only one DNF this season. "Looking at all that, I'd have to say it's been a good year," Labonte said. "The only thing that could make it any better is a win, and we've got a good chance to do that at Atlanta." Such success wasn't a given at the beginning of the season. During the offseason, the Joe Gibbs Racing team switched its automobile stable from Chevrolet to Pontiac. But Labonte zipped out of the gate quickly, rising to as high as third in the point standings following April's race at Texas. Since the first race at Dover in June, Labonte has had a stronghold on seventh. Three runner-up finishes since that race have steadied his position in the point standings. "There was a learning curve with the Pontiac, but it's turned out to be a great race car," crew chief Jimmy Makar said. "With a year under our belts and some more testing during the offseason, we can make it even better for next year. "But before we think about that, we have to tackle Atlanta. We didn't have any problem with the tires down there like a lot of teams have been complaining about. Maybe that will give us an advantage in the race. We've been on the verge of winning all season, so maybe we can end this year like we did last year." By Camp & Associates, Inc.