The battle begins
Labonte begins defense of Cup on Sunday
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- The image still lingers of Bobby Labonte, the unsuspecting champion, standing on the hood of his race car.
As he hoisted the huge Winston Cup trophy at the final event in Atlanta last season, it slipped from his grasp and he almost dropped it. Then he nearly fell off his car as he tried to keep his balance.
"That thing is heavier than it looks," Labonte said, referring to the roughly 30-pound trophy.
So is the burden of trying to win it again.
The soft-spoken champion begins defense of his championship Sunday in the season-opening Daytona 500.
He'll have 40-plus teams not only trying to beat him, but hoping to figure out what he did last year to succeed in the endurance test that has become the NASCAR season.
It's the subject everyone on his team thinks about, but hardly anyone discusses.
"We talk about it only enough to say, `By the way, that was fun and we'd like to do it again,'" Labonte said. "At the same time, we know we've got 36 races to go out there and it's a lot of work to be as aggressive and as fast and consistent as we were last year."
Indeed, Labonte put together one of the most consistent seasons in Winston Cup history. He finished in the top-10 in 24 of 34 races and averaged a seventh-place finish.
Labonte's year offered proof that, more than winning, consistency is the key to contending in Winston Cup. It's a formula that seems to fit Labonte's profile perfectly.
"He's very, very calm, very cool under pressure," crew chief Jimmy Makar said. "He doesn't get caught up in the hype and accomplishments and things like that. That makes it real nice, because it keeps a sense of calm and focus in everybody's mind."
To recharge his batteries in the short offseason, Labonte went fishing in Brazil for peacock bass (a gold fish with black stripes), took a more active role in the new office-and-garage complex he's building in North Carolina and, of course, spent a few days in New York for the NASCAR awards ceremony.
The test follows soon, and it won't be nearly as relaxing.
Just ask Dale Jarrett, who opened defense of his 1999 title with a victory at Daytona but followed with a mostly frustrating season in which he finished 11th or worse 10 times.
"It was a little discouraging at times, because you can't quite pull off the things you pulled off the year before," Jarrett said. "We didn't hit on things the way we did the year before. It got to where it would take unusual circumstances for us to win."
Labonte insists he's not looking for a formula -- not from Jarrett, or 1997 and 1998 champion Jeff Gordon, or from his own brother, Terry, who won two championships but never repeated.
"If someone came out, laid a notebook out and said, 'here are all the things that are going to happen to you,' I don't know that I'd use it," Bobby Labonte said. "It wouldn't necessarily be right for me, especially because this is a different year and these are different circumstances."
So what is right for Labonte?
Staying levelheaded seems to be the key. So does continuing the quest to get better -- to find ways to save tenths of seconds and improve performance on shorter tracks, which was about the only place Labonte's team struggled last season.
"We look back and think it was pretty good," Labonte said. "But the way we are, we want to make sure we don't lose anything. We want to gain. We want to get better."
That might be why Labonte, Makar and car owner Joe Gibbs didn't look or talk like satisfied men as they strolled through Daytona this week. It's a place where Labonte has never won.
His week got off to a rough start as he fell behind a car spewing oil in a qualifying race and, with his vision impaired, finished 19th. He needed a past-champion's provisional just to make the starting grid.
"It'll race better on Sunday," he promised.
Can he keep that promise? No doubt, everybody will be watching.