Bobby Labonte is poised to join sibling Terry as a season's title winner
On Sunday afternoon, just about every NASCAR driver was doing a Bobby Labonte impersonation. In hauler after hauler in the garage area at Pocono Raceway, TV sets were tuned to The Weather Channel to see if Mother Nature was going to co-operate with NASCAR's plans to run the Pocono 500. She didn't, and because of rain the race was postponed until Monday, when it was won by Jeremy Mayfield.
Labonte, you see, is a Weather Channel nut. He watches it religiously, rain or shine, following fronts and storms as if they were characters in a soap. "It never sits still," Labonte says of the weather. "You can watch it for a half hour, then go away and come back and see how it's changed." He proudly wears a TWC jacket given to him by weatherman Jim Can-tore after a private tour last year of the channel's studios in Atlanta.
You can't blame Labonte's competitors for trying to be like him in as many ways as possible. Over his last 25 races, stretching back into last season, he has finished worse than ninth only five times. Since replacing Dale Jarrett as the driver of Joe Gibbs's number 18 car in 1995, Labonte has gone from being known as the younger brother of two-time Winston Cup champ Terry to being known as a premier racer.
It hasn't been an easy road. In late 1994, Bobby was told he had Graves' disease, which landed him in the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where a dosage of medication was given that almost required him to be quarantined. He then sheared off the tip of his left shoulder blade when he crashed early in the '95 season and did the same to his right shoulder blade in '99. Through all these troubles, he has won 13 races, including five last year.
This year Labonte has prevailed only once, and that victory was attributable in large part to his team's mastery of the elements. At Rockingham, in the second race of the season, most teams ran as hard as they could right off the bat, thinking a hard rain was going to fall. But Labonte's crew studied the Doppler images at the track weather station and decided that the rain would hold off and that Labonte should conserve his car. His Pontiac was the class of the field over the last 50 laps.
Since then, Labonte has had three second-place finishes and three thirds. But because NASCAR's points system rewards consistency, the steady, soft-spoken Texan doesn't have to brood if he gets nosed out "We've lost by margins you could fit in a measuring cup," he says of his season. "Those are hard to swallow. But we know the key is getting top-five finishes, and if you have a bad day, don't let it be as bad as it could be."
That was what Labonte did on Monday. His car gave him fits all weekend during practice—"the worst it's been all year," he said—but he still finished 13th. After 15 races his Winston Cup points lead over Dale Earnhardt stood at a scant 57. Remarkably, in a sport with so many prominent families, no set of brothers has won Winston Cup points titles. It doesn't take a meteorologist to forecast that there's a good chance of that changing.
Craig Is Out as CEO; Rahal Is In
Overshadowing Helio Castroneves's win in Sunday's Grand Prix of Detroit was the forced resignation of CART CEO Andrew Craig two days before the race. He was replaced, on an interim basis, by Bobby Rahal.