A surging Labonte hopes to regain Pocono touch

Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) -- Bobby Labonte has gotten over last year's rough season. Now he's driving as well as ever and looking to regain his touch at Pocono Raceway.

Few drivers have mastered Pocono better than Labonte, a three-time winner who swept the races on this track in 2000 on the way to the Winston Cup championship.

But after winning at Long Pond in July 2001, Labonte was 26th last June in the Pocono 500 and 11th a month later in the Pennsylvania 500. He wound up 16th in the points race -- his worst position since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 1995.

"We seemed to be untouchable up here for a while," Labonte said. "Then it seemed like the bottom fell out of it and we came crashing back down to earth last year."

On Sunday, in the Pocono 500, Labonte will go for his second victory this year, and that would give the circuit's hottest driver six straight top-three finishes. That's quite a turnaround for someone with only five top-fives all of last season.

"All anyone wants to ask me nowadays is about what's different from this season to last season," Labonte said. "I wish I knew what the magic is. But I just know right now everything seems to be working out great and I am not wanting to do anything to change that."

There already has been one big change. Overworked team manager Jimmy Makar gave up his crew-chief duties at the end of last season, and Gibbs hired Michael "Fatback" McSwain to call the shots for Labonte.

The matchup has clicked. Labonte already has eight top-fives and is fourth in the points race.

"He made an immediate impact," Labonte said. "We both want to win races and run up front every week."

Labonte certainly got what he was looking for in McSwain.

"Every team he had been with in the past improved and ended up being pretty fast," Labonte said. "He is a great cheerleader for me when I need it, but he is also a racer and wants to win every single time we go to the track."

The speed at which they progressed had surprised McSwain.

"I wanted us to be a consistent top-10 team every week," he said. "I think we have done that more so than I thought we would have at this point."

Labonte's primary competition figures to be Ryan Newman, who got his first victory of the season last Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Newman is driving for Penske Racing South, the team that has won six times at Pocono.

With four poles this season and 10 top-five starts in his last 11 races, Newman also is the best qualifier in the series. That's a huge advantage at Pocono, where eight of the last 11 races have been won from a starting position of fourth or better.

Newman won an ARCA race on the mountaintop in 2000, and was impressive at the track last season, leading 19 laps in June and finishing fifth in July.

"I think we've learned a lot since then and can go back and be fast and competitive again," he said.

Tracks often produce winners in cycles, so perhaps Dale Jarrett can use Pocono to get rolling. He won for the third time last June at Pocono, but the 1999 series champion has finished 20th or worse in four of the last five races this season and is 24th in points

Bill Elliott won the Pennsylvania 500 in July, but has a broken left foot and might not contend despite a record five victories on the track. Also formidable at Pocono are four-time winner Rusty Wallace and three-time winner Jeff Gordon.