A long road back to the top T. Labonte leads Cup for first time since '85

August 18, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- You look into Terry Labonte's hazel eyes and try to figure out how he feels being back at the top, back leading the Winston Cup points race for the first time since 1985.

You want to know what it's like for this quiet man, who won the 1984 title but who hasn't finished in the top five of the points standings since 1988. You want to know what he thinks about being where he is going into the final third of the season.

"I know it's been a long time," said Labonte. "I knew it was '85 the last time I'd led. So it's nice to be back on top."


Labonte's crew chief Gary DeHart is in the team's trailer. He's popping Rolaids.

"A pack a day," he said, as he juggled an interview, a crew member who was trying to sort out Labonte's transportation back to his hotel, and a phone call concerning transportation for his race-day crew from Jackson, Mich., to the track for today's GM Goodwrench 400.

"It's getting more intense now," said DeHart, who was a fabricator on Labonte's championship team 12 years ago. "If something goes bad early in the season, you know you can recover and just look at it as racing. But now, you worry more. And when things go good, you want to get your lap sheet out and look at the rundown. I know before I get off that box in the

pits if we've gained or lost ground.

"We want to win. You get around these guys and you can sense it, but my guys are the most superstitious in the business."

Here DeHart reaches under his desk and knocks on wood.

"We don't want to dwell on what could be . . . . but we have a meeting every week and we talk about how we're going to win the championship -- if we're going to win the championship."

If they're going to win the championship, they're going to have to be very good. Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt is just 76 points behind. Defending champion Jeff Gordon is 119 points back. And Dale Jarrett, who has been so good this season that he's in line to capture the Winston Million Dollar Bonus at Darlington, S.C., in two weeks, is 147 points back.

No one is counting any of them out. In 1992, the late Alan Kulwicki was 278 points behind when he left Dover, Del., in September and Kulwicki won the title.

"The main thing is to keep yourself in position to win going into the last two or three races of the season," said Earnhardt's car owner Richard Childress. "We've had a lot of experience at this and Labonte's crew hasn't. But he's got a lot of experience on that team and I don't think they're going to skip a beat.

"I don't think they're going to lose it. I think if we want it, we're going to have to go out and win it and I think Dale's performance at Watkins Glen last week showed everyone just how determined we are."

A week ago, Earnhardt, driving with a broken collarbone and sternum, led his Chevrolet around the wicked Watkins Glen road course for a sixth-place finish.

Today, he starts 16th, six spots ahead of Labonte, and Childress said both Earnhardt and the team were ready to take a few more chances to make sure they stay well-positioned in the points.

Ray Evernham, the crew chief for Gordon's Chevrolet, said his team can't do any more than it's already doing.

"To say we're going to increase our focus or try harder over the last 10 or 11 races does an injustice to my race team," Evernham said, sliding out from under his race car. "I can't ask them to try any harder than they are. . . . But I admit, over the last part of this season we'll probably have more Maalox moments than we've been having."

The twist in this points race is that Labonte and Gordon are teammates. Both drive for car owner Rick Hendrick. And both say they are inspired by the other.

"I'm happy for those guys. We all kind of share. Hopefully, it will come down to us or them," said Evernham.

In the Labonte trailer, DeHart unrolls another Rolaid.

"If we leave here in first, we'll feel a lot better," DeHart said. "The main thing is we don't want to make any dumb or stupid mistakes. We're lucky because we have Terry, who is a cool Texan."

Robert Yates, who owns Jarrett's team, is keeping his eyes on Labonte. He knows Earnhardt and Childress are great at overcoming obstacles, but he isn't overlooking the current points leader. "There's not a race track Terry can't run well on."

When Labonte won the title in 1984, he did it with consistency. He won just twice, but finished second six times, third six times and had 10 other top 10 finishes.

This season, he's taking the same path, combining the consistency of one win, six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.

"It would mean an awful lot to win another title," Labonte said. "I didn't really appreciate what I had the first time. I thought I'd win it again in 1985 and 1986. But it didn't happen. After a while you realize you don't get that many chances. So, I'd like to win it again. I think I want it much worse now. But I've got to be patient."

If he holds on, Labonte no doubt will tell everyone just how "nice" it is.

Starting field for today's GM Goodwrench 400

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