LONG POND, Pa. -- If this were a football team, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs would have called it a rebuilding year. But this is Winston Cup stock car racing, and while running a race team is similar to running a football team, a turnaround can occur much faster. It certainly has for Gibbs, who says the members of his team have performed like veterans.
They have melded a new garage, four new cars, a new car design and a new driver into a winning combination in six months.
At the moment, the team with Bobby Labonte behind the steering wheel is on a roll, and Gibbs seems to have regained his magic touch.
"It may seem like magic," Gibbs said, laughing hard. "But I've been hammered pretty good in other seasons. We feel fortunate. It's been a long, hard road to get here."
Two years ago, the Gibbs team with Dale Jarrett at the wheel won the Daytona 500 in Gibbs' sophomore Winston Cup season and wound up fourth in points. It seemed headed toward a championship challenge. But last year, the same team couldn't get out of its own way.
Trying to defend its 500 victory at Daytona, it made changes to its Chevrolet and wound up out of the running with a 35th-place finish. And it was out of sync for the rest of the season. By the time 1994 was through, the team was 16th in points, and Jarrett had announced he was leaving.
Now, with Labonte driving, Gibbs' team is back in contention. Labonte won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., two weeks ago and finished second at Dover, Del., last week.
With three top-five finishes in his past four races, Labonte is one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, and the team stands sixth in the championship points race going into today's UAW-GM Teamwork 500 at Pocono International Raceway.
"The biggest difference on this team is attitude," said crew chief Jimmy Makar, relaxing with Labonte in the team's trailer as rain washed out yesterday's practice sessions. "This team was on top of the world in 1993 . . . and then came last year. It started with a horrible week at Daytona, and that set the tone.
"Instead of trying to battle back from a bad start with a win-win attitude, every little thing that went wrong was looked at as an obstacle to set us back instead of something to overcome. . . . The attitude was pure negativity."
Labonte doesn't appear to have a negative bone in his body.
"I'm just happy to be here," he said. "I didn't know anything about what they were going through before I arrived. All I knew was that I had lost my sponsorship, that I didn't know if my car owner, Bill Davis, would be able to find another one and that I needed a job.
"I knew this team had won in the past, and when Joe called and asked me if I'd come drive for him, I said yes. I had no hesitation."
Labonte, 31, two years removed from his rookie season and still considered one of the drivers of the sport's future, brought optimism, and his new team -- with its new garage, new cars and new driver -- simply decided to make a fresh start.
A driver change can be as traumatic as a quarterback change on a football team. Gibbs knew, with all the changes, it was probably going to take time to see results.
"I know what this team has accomplished doesn't add up," he said. "I just accept that, even though I know it takes a lot of hard work. But we're on a roll. Everything has clicked and there is a chemistry that you hope for but can't plan.
"When we first organized this team, we looked a long time before we hired Dale. We had a long list. The team was new. I was new. I didn't know what it would be like to own and operate a race team. I wanted and needed maturity from our driver and Dale was perfect for us.
"This time, we were more experienced. This time we were more willing to go with a young driver and take a risk and maybe build a star."
1. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 163.375. 2. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird, 163.250. 3. Bobby Hamilton, Pontiac Grand Prix, 162.955. 4. Ricky Rudd, Ford Thunderbird, 162.805. 5. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 162.484. 6. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 162.244. 7. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 162.200. 8. Rusty Wallace, Ford Thunderbird, 161.993. 9. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 161.647. 10. Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 161.618.
11. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird, 161.551. 12. Greg Sacks, Pontiac Grand Prix, 161.496. 13. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 161.377. 14. Dale Jarrett, Ford Thunderbird, 161.328. 15. Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 161.325. 16. Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 161.290. 17. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, 161.290. 18. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 161.212. 19. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 161.169. 20. Bobby Hillin, Ford Thunderbird, 161.152