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The Callahan Report: Labonte, Gibbs, & Makar: A 'Great' Racing Team

7 June 1999

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
DOVER, DE: The difference between a good racing team and a great racing team is knowing how to play the cards that are dealt to you. Bobby Labonte and the Intestate Batteries Pontiac team did not have the fastest car on the track at Dover Downs Sunday. They were still smart enough to figure out how to win the MBNA Platinum 400. By going slow and saving fuel, Labonte was able to visit victory lane for the eighth time in his career.

The heads-up call was made by Jimmy Makar. The veteran crew chief saw that his driver was having trouble getting around Dale Jarrett. Labonte and Jarrett were battling for sixth place at the time. Labonte was using precious fuel trying to get around the current Winston Cup points leader. That's when Makar called off his big dog, Labonte. He ordered him to slow down, planning to run the final 107 laps of the race without a pit stop.

"I don't like gas-mileage racing because you want to have the fastest car and run away. But it was a great call by Jimmy," said Labonte

"I ran about 50 laps as hard as I could, then I got hung up behind Dale Jarrett, and I said, 'It isn't worth it. There ain't no sense in busting my butt to pass him because we'll have to pit anyway,'" Labonte concluded.

Labonte's pit stop never came. While the front-runners darted to the pits late in the race, Labonte watched his position improve. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin, all pitted for fuel only as Labonte maintained his steady, but slower pace. It was the same move that won the race for Dale Jarrett a year ago at Dover.

"If we were running second at the time, we might not have wanted to give up the track position and we might have done like the others," Labonte said. "But we were running sixth. "

Jeff Gordon, who was the leader for 88 laps until Labonte took over, finished in second place. He succeeded in achieving his goal of finishing in the top five. He ended his worse ever consecutive streak of bad finishes. Gordon moved up two places in the point standing as a result. He went from eighth to sixth in the point standings.

"We've got to get this fuel tank figured out,'' said Gordon, the defending Winston Cup Champion. "We keep getting beat on gas mileage at this place, but we certainly proved we had the car to beat today."

Gordon was worried he might finish second, but he didn't think it would be to Bobby Labonte. The other half of the powerful Joe Gibbs racing team is piloted by Tony Stewart. The rookie surprised the crowd as he bulldozed his way through the field from his 24th starting position. Stewart led the most laps in the race. He was in front for 127 circuits.

Stewart, who thought the race at Dover was a walk-in-the-park after completing 1100 miles of competition last weekend, was forced to make a late stop for fuel like so many others. He wound up in fourth place, behind Mark Martin. Stewart is still trying to become the first driver since Davey Allison to win a NASCAR Winston Cup event in his rookie season.

"We keep gaining ground," Stewart said after the race. "We're not going away. That's the nice thing.'"

The man responsible for putting together the super team of Labonte and Stewart is Joe Gibbs. He was surprised at the outcome, but obviously pleased. One of his teams had the field pretty much covered (Stewart) and the other used cool heads to win the race.

"I thought we were going to win a few by outrunning people, but today we won it on a fuel-economy deal," Gibbs said. "We're thrilled."

Labonte started the weekend off very fast. He began the race from the pole. When the green flag dropped, he led the first four laps before being passed by the Ford of Mark Martin. Labonte only led 44 laps, but he loved every one of them.

"I led all the important laps ... the first one, the one in the middle (which paid a $10,000 extra) and the last one," he said. "The others don't matter."

Labonte earned $144,820 for the victory. His confidence in crew chief Makar continues to grow. Labonte has never doubted his chances of visiting victory lane this season.

"We're awful consistent right now, and that's the name of the game," Labonte said. "We figured the wins would come. It wouldn't have mattered if we didn't win today, because we would have gotten one down the road."

In the end, Labonte certainly didn't have the fastest car at Dover Downs. But he had a team effort with brains, confidence and courage. The package is showing dividends. Labonte is in third place in the Winston Cup points, 69 behind the leader, Dale Jarrett.

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