His longtime friend and crew chief, Gary DeHart, resigned on Oct. 1 after an altercation with a teammate. According to Hendricks staffers, DeHart's outburst was the result of stress caused by his team's dismal performance this summer and fall while trying to defend the championship without two key mechanics from last year.
Labonte was atop the point standings in mid-July, but his average finish over the next 10 races was 22nd. He won the DieHard 500 at Talladega on Sunday—a race in which a dozen top contenders were caught in a massive 21-car pileup. The win left Labonte fifth in the run for the Winston Cup, 525 points behind leader Gordon with three races left in the season.
"Gary had been under a lot of stress," says Jimmy Johnson. "I don't think we were as prepared to defend the title as we should have been. He worked around the clock trying to fix things, but it was just too many jobs for one person."
Besides "absolutely terrible luck," John son blames the Labonte team's decline or rules that currently allow Fords a slightly lower roofline than Chevrolets. Labonte, though, doesn't buy that excuse. "It's hard for me to say that we're at a disadvantage when Jeff [ Gordon, Labonte's teammate] has won 10 races and is leading the points in a Chevy," says Labonte. "I wish he had a Ford."
No complaining. All ice. Even now.
Crash-Proofing the IRL
Last Saturday night at Las Vegas Motoi Speedway, the Indy Racing League season mercifully came to an end. Eliseo Salazar won the Las Vegas 500K, and Tony Stewart won the series title. There were no additions to the long list of drivers injured during the open-wheel tour's first two seasons although five drivers were involved in accidents, including Roberto Guerrero, who must be thanking his lucky stars that he was able to walk away from a high-speed tumble across the Vegas infield.
This season, seven racers suffered major injuries, most of them the result of rear-first crashes in which the heavy, rigid gearboxes and bell housings (the components that connect gearboxes to engines) did not deform enough to dissipate energy. For the Vegas race, the IRL mandated that extra foam padding be mounted around drivers' heads in the cockpits and that thicker attenuators—cubes of aluminum honeycomb meant to give way, thus dissipating the energy of crashes—be placed near the gearboxes, which sit at the rear of the cars.
Driver Willy T. Ribbs, assessing the safety situation while mulling over a return to Indy car racing after five years of driving sports cars, says that the IRL "has the safety of the front end of the car handled, but the rear end of the car is so strong that in rear-first crashes the shock is transferred to the drivers."
IRL executive director Leo Mehl promises that the league will redesign its cars to improve safety next year. There's no time to waste, not with the league planning to add two high-speed ovals, Dover and Atlanta, to its '98 schedule.