Bobby Labonte looking to turn season around

Friday, August 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) _ For the first time in his career, Jimmy Spencer watched a Winston Cup race from the pits.

It was educational, informative and enlightening, but something he'd prefer never to do again.

Because Spencer isn't known for his road-racing talent, team owner Chip Ganassi decided to put specialist Scott Pruett behind the wheel of Spencer's No. 41 Dodge last Sunday at Watkins Glen International. The move paid off, partly, with Pruett challenging for the lead late and eventually finishing sixth.

But Spencer failed to qualify in a backup car, leaving him atop the pit box for the race.

``I think everybody thought I'd surrender and go home, but I was up there for everything,'' Spencer said. ``I went through our meetings before the race, and rooted for Scott and the guys during the race.''

Spencer will be back in his regular car this weekend for the Pespi 400 at Michigan Speedway.

In 24 career starts at Michigan, Spencer has one top-five and four top-10 finishes. Earlier this year, he wound up 28th after starting 13th.

``We've always run pretty good up there,'' Spencer said. ``We didn't have the car the way we needed it in June, but we realize what we did wrong. We're going back with a different setup than we had the first time, so we'll be good.''

Another driver who's looking forward to the trip north is Bobby Labonte. The 2000 Winston Cup champion is mired in 18th place in the standings, 660 points behind leader Sterling Marlin. Labonte has just one victory and three top fives, on pace for his worst season since 1994.

To make matters worse, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart still has a shot at the title, sitting fourth just 104 points back.

``It's definitely frustrating to know all of this happened just two years after we won the championship,'' Labonte said. ``We just haven't been doing things as well as we need to.''

The quickness of his slide from the top is even more surprising. In his championship year, Labonte won four races and finished in the top five 19 times in 34 starts. He also finished every race, completing all but nine laps.

Last season, the number of victories fell to two, but he managed a sixth-place finish in the standings.

He admits part of his problem is the outdated body style of the Pontiac he drives. Developed before the 1996 season, the car hasn't been altered dramatically and has fallen behind the new Dodges, Fords and Chevrolets.

``I guess I would say the Pontiac is not the most efficient car,'' Labonte said. ``It's a good race car, but the Dodge and Ford have more downforce and make less drag, and we're kind of restricted on what we can do by our body style.''

To combat this, the team announced a switch to Chevrolets for 2003, and Labonte and Stewart might use Monte Carlos in some events later this year.

``The Chevy is a notch better,'' Labonte said. ``We've only tested the cars a couple of times, so we ain't going to pick up things in two weeks that other Chevy teams have learned over the years.''

Even without a Chevrolet, Labonte is looking forward to Michigan. He's won three times at the track, including a sweep of the two races in 1995. And NASCAR announced a rule change for this race only which will allow Pontiac teams to bump their front air dams out an extra half-inch.

Theoretically, this should allow for more front downforce and a better balanced car.

``I'm really not sure what to expect,'' Labonte said. ``I would love to say that's what we needed, but I know we were asking for a lot more than we received. I guess we'll take what we can get and make the best of it.''