Back in the hunt
Defending Brickyard champ says he's still in points race
INDIANAPOLIS - Bobby Labonte says he's not out of the hunt just yet.
Heading into the Brickyard 400 on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the season has belonged to current leader Jeff Gordon and close pursuers Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett.
Even though nearly half the 36-race season remains, almost everyone has all but conceded the title to one of the top three.
Labonte, the defending series champion, doesn't believe it's over -- particularly after his victory last Sunday in Pocono.
"I know that we have to be more consistent than we were in the first half of the season," said Labonte, also the defending winner in the Brickyard race. "After last weekend, we know we can build on that. Maybe we've figured out a little more about the new tire that Goodyear has given us and some other things."
Still, Labonte, who is eighth in the standings, 409 points behind three-time champion Gordon, knows he can't do it alone.
"We can't just run good and expect to win the championship," Labonte said. "Those three guys can't have the same good luck they've had in the first half of the season."
Jarrett, whose only title came in 1999, knows exactly what Labonte is talking about. He fell from a tie for first to third after crashing during the Pocono race.
"The way I look at it, anybody in the top 10 in the points is certainly a threat at this point," Jarrett said. "We got a lot of racing left to go and you can lose 100 points in a hurry. If all three of us have a bad week and Bobby has another race like last week, it can tighten up in a hurry."
Rudd, who trails Gordon by 45 points and is 62 ahead of his Robert Yates Racing teammate, said he wouldn't be surprised to see Labonte or some of the other drivers in the current top 10 in contention by the end of the season.
"All you have to do is look at what we've done," said Rudd, who is looking for his first championship.
He was 11th, 261 points behind then-leader Jarrett, after an engine failure on April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway.
"If you're 300, 400 points back, it's still doable," Rudd said.
A big step for Labonte would be joining Gordon and Jarrett as the only two-time winners here on Sunday. That won't be easy, though, with the intense competition in Winston Cup these days.
There have been 13 different winners in the first 20 races and Labonte, the latest of those, said, "If you're not 100 percent, somebody else is going to be, and they're going to beat you."
Preparations began Friday with a one-hour practice that barely gave the teams time to figure out anything.
Since the Brickyard 400 was added to the schedule in 1994. it has been run as a Saturday event. This year, however, with NBC broadcasting it for the first time, the race will be run on Sunday and the entire schedule was moved forward one day.
As part of the change, qualifying was switched to Saturday, with practice both before and after the 43-car lineup is determined.
"With this new schedule, this is more of a shakedown day," Jarrett said. "Really, you have more of a two-day event now. It just makes things a little bit tougher for everyone because everything is a little compressed and you have the IROC squeezed in there, too."
Several of the top Winston Cup drivers are to take part in the finale of the four-race International Race of Champions Series on Saturday. That event also features drivers from the CART and Indy Racing League open-wheel series' as well as Jeff Green, last year's NASCAR Busch Series champion, racing in identically prepared Pontiac Trans-Ams.
Rookie Ryan Newman was fastest in the opening practice with a lap of 177.908 mph, followed by Rudd at 177.637, Jeremy Mayfield at 177.452, Jarrett at 176.824 and Rusty Wallace at 176.446, all in Fords.
Gordon's Chevrolet was 18th at 175.135, while Labonte's Pontiac was 22nd at 174.914.
All of them were considerably slower than Rudd's pole-winning 181.068 last August.
"Everybody will adapt to the new schedule, but I wouldn't get too excited about the speeds you see today," Rudd said. "We'll get a lot better idea in practice tomorrow morning."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.