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March 15, 2005

Bobby Labonte

DANIEL PASSE: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL Teleconference. A couple of small notes this week as we head into Atlanta. This week's NEXTEL Wake-Up Call will take place on Friday, March 18th at 11 a.m. in the media center. The guest will be Carl Edwards. Also please mark your calendars down for Wednesday, March 23rd, for a special NEXTEL All-Star announcement. It will be held in the Charlotte area and more information will be forthcoming at Atlanta. Today we're joined by Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet. As you all know, Bobby was the 2000 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion as well as the 1991 NASCAR Busch Series champion. Bobby, Interstate Batteries and Joe Gibbs Racing are in their 11th year together, which is one of the longest driver, team and sponsor relationships in the sport. As we head into Atlanta, it's important to point out that Bobby is the leader of all active drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with a total of six. He's also tied with Richard Petty for third all time on the Atlanta victory list. Bobby will not only be running his No. 18 on Sunday, but will also be piloting the Morgan-Dollar Motorsports No. 47 Chevy All-Stars Silverado in Friday's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race. It will be his fourth career Truck Series start. Bobby, you have had a tough start this season. How do you feel about coming to Atlanta, especially now that you're doing double duty there?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, it's definitely more comforting there than maybe some other places I would go to. But really, I mean, you know, it's just been a weird start to the season. But, you know, whether it was Atlanta or somewhere else, I mean, after the past couple -- two of the past three races for the start of the season, I'm looking forward just to the next race to hopefully rebound from what we've been through so far. Whether it's Atlanta or not, I do like Atlanta, so that just makes it that much better.

Q. Considering the fact that in NEXTEL Cup racing or in NASCAR, long relationships are almost a thing of the past, what has kept you and Gibbs Racing together?

BOBBY LABONTE: You know, I guess our relationships are more like families than anything else. With Norm Miller, just for example, I was driving today down the road and the phone rings, it's Norm Miller, giving me words of encouragement, saying, "Hey, this is just one of those things you got to go through." Through the tough times and the good times, they're always there. We're there for each other. The same way with Mr. Gibbs and JD and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. Just the atmosphere there is obviously, you know, maybe for me just real comfortable. I mean, Mark Martin probably has the same situation with Jack Roush, you know, as far as owner goes. That's the same feeling I have with Joe and JD and everybody there. And Jimmy and everybody, we've been through a lot. When you go through a period together for so long, you go through a lot together, obviously. I'm just glad to be there.

Q. When you look at what has happened at the beginning of this season and the fact that points are so important, and everybody is talking about now, a 26-race season, then the playoffs, is it tough to maintain patience in order not to be overly aggressive or do you at this point say that you've got to go out and take this thing by the bit and go after it?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I think what you have to do, you know, we need to go out there and obviously be cautiously aggressive on every race. I mean, we thought we were doing that -- you know, we thought we'd be doing that the whole time. You know, we don't want to get too crazy on anything. But at the same time, I mean, I think you just go in the back of your mind, every weekend you want to go win the race, and that's what you try to do, you just do don't anything stupid to jeopardize yourself from not winning the race. You don't want to finish 35th. You want to finish second if you can't win it. We have to keep that in mind. Luckily for us we're going on race four, it's not race 24. As we can look at it right now, without looking into the future, we've got a lot of races to go yet before race 26. You know, that's a good, positive note. Obviously the other positive note is that everybody on our race team's like, "I can't believe what's happening, but we're excited about going to the next race." Everybody has been upbeat about it even though we've had terrible problems happen to us. But everybody's been upbeat about the way we feel like we're going to be competitive as far as we go.

Q. Are they upbeat because the next race is Atlanta or because they think they've got everything figured out?

BOBBY LABONTE: I hope they're upbeat because the next race is the next race, not because it's Atlanta. If there's one thing that I've been branded with, is that "Well, when you get to Atlanta, you know you're going to run good." I wish it was not that. I'm glad I run good there. But I wish -- if you look at it, we've run good everywhere before, it's just that we run better at Atlanta. Let's just say we go to Atlanta, we can run good there because we won. We can go to Bristol, we can go to Martinsville, we can go anywhere we want to go and run good, too.

Q. What do you think has to be done? NASCAR just released their fines for the weekend. They suspended a couple of crew chiefs, fined them $35,000. Manufacturers have said that's lunch money to the manufacturers. Do you think we'll ever see NASCAR taking away actual wins when something is illegal? How far do the teams have to push the envelope?

BOBBY LABONTE: If I may ask, who got suspended and what were the fines?

Q. I hate to be a reporter here and read this. We have Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, has been suspended for competition for the next two races and fined $35,000. Jeff Gordon, the owner of the 48, has been penalized 25 owner points. Todd Berrier crew chief of the No. 29 Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick has been suspended for the next four races and fined dollars $25,000.

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, not nothing any more details of what the 48 car did, I know what the 29 car did, but, you know, a lot of times I guess, you know, it's getting to the point where NASCAR has pretty much made a point where they don't want to see people, you know, cheating because they want to be fair for everybody, which I think is great. Is the suspension, you know, is that right? You know, yes and no. I mean, I don't know. A suspension is two weeks off at home. Well, maybe it's community service work or something. Clean up the racetrack after the race is over or something that makes you where you don't want to do that. Maybe they want to be home anyway. You know, I don't know again what happened there. But obviously I think NASCAR -- by taking points away, fining them, and giving the suspensions, it keeps escalating, you know, it keeps escalating. So it's going to get to a point where everybody's going to go, This is way too much. Is it too much right now? No. But it's taking steps to get people's attention, I guess. And that's probably the right approach. I can't really think of anything other than community service work to do.

Q. Is there any way to summarize your last 39 races since you won at Homestead the end of 2003? It isn't like you haven't challenged at a lot of places. Is there any way to sum up what's occurred in that time?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, yes, it's frustrating. I can just give it to you in one word. It's frustrating. If I wasn't -- if I didn't worry about stuff or if I wasn't competitive, I mean, it wouldn't be that big a deal. Man, it just, it burns me up on the inside. You know, I know we've got a great race team and I know we can make it all happen. But it's been frustrating. You know, our group's going to get better. We have to get better. I mean, if we don't get better, we'll be doing something else. We have to get better and we will. It just takes a lot of work. I can't do it without them, they can't do it without me, I hope. That's the way you've got to work at it together. I'd rather have them on my side than trying to do it, you know, against 'em. So, you know, but it's been frustrating. But, hey, they can talk all they want about character building, but we've been there and we want to get over the character-building part and just get back to running good and competitive and winning races because when you do that it, it sure does seem like it's a whole lot easier than when you're not.

Q. How much concern is there currently sitting 37th in the points that after two more races you might be in a position of having to qualify on speed at race No. 6?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, unless I've read the rules wrong, I still have a championship.

Q. Forget the question. You're a step ahead of me. I appreciate it.

BOBBY LABONTE: Yeah, well, I was hoping -- maybe they hadn't changed the rules, and I hoped they hadn't.

Q. To put yourself in the shoes of the guys, that's a number of guys that will be in that position. What kind of concern would be there?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I mean, I kind of looked at it the past couple weeks. You got about eight guys that got to qualify in on speed. The way I look at it is, it's just like driving the truck this weekend. They said, we were down there testing, "We got to get in on speed. We can't rely on points." And I said, "Okay. Well, if you qualify first, it really don't matter, does it?" "Nope."" All right, well, let's work for that and don't worry about it." I hope in three weeks we'll be qualifying in the Top 10 on either basis where it don't matter. That's our goal. We'll fall back on -- we'll look at the points or we'll look at the starting positions after we qualify. But right now if you go out there with the ambition of qualifying, if you have a good enough car, you practice good enough, that's your goal. And that's what we want to do. We don't want to be where we're at and we don't want to stay where we're at. We have to get out of this hole. By doing it, we're going to have to qualify up front, run up front, finish up front.

Q. Question about multi-car teams. It's pretty obvious you look at them now, they're kind of dominating NASCAR. You guys at Gibbs were really the first to have success. You get the championship, so does Tony Stewart. What is the key to that as opposed to having one premiere team and a couple of support teams? What is the key to having success throughout the organization?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, there's more than one key. I think a lot of it just depends on, you know, if you get -- if you have three or five, six teams, you know, the income that you have is enormous. That lets you, you know, buy more stuff, get more technology, go overseas, you know, get more data, get more information, get more drivers or get more input, more teams got more tests, and more tests mean more results, good results mean better results. You can have bad results and not end up any better. It's just kind of like a monopoly of it. Whether it's good or bad, I really don't know. But I know if you were to sit in the drivers meeting, look out to the teams, you know, you got five drivers and crew chiefs on one team, that's 10 people, out of 80 people in the drivers meeting. There's one team. You know, then you got another group of four teams. You know, at the end of the day, or at the end of whatever the end is going to be one day, if there's six car owners for the whole series, is that as good as having 25 car owners for the whole series? I don't know the answer to that. But I would just assume that my gut feeling is as for conversation piece goes, you'd want to have more than less.

Q. Can you put yourself in, say, a Robby Gordon's position? What is he going up against being a single-car team? What are those guys going up against?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, you know, it's tough for him obviously. It's tough for a single-car operation to do it. He's doing a great job at it. You know, he just doesn't have the finances, the resources to do it. Now, what you think about also, what NASCAR has done, they've created templates that are all pretty equal. They've created so many rules that, you know, it's pretty basic. You can't get too far out of shape, you know what I mean? But also at the same time the one million little pieces that it takes to put the car together, the twisting, the chassis, the motor, the this, this, this, this, that that it takes makes up just as much probably difference between a good car, bad car or a good team, bad team, than, say, for instance, it was 10 years ago with less rules, less everything, a guy could be way over here. But now it's important because if you've got a Roush that has five cars, a Gibbs a three, Hendricks a four or five, a Evernham with two or three, okay. And if you're right behind 'em, then you're right behind five of 'em, you're right behind four of 'em, you're right behind three of 'em. You're not behind one car, one car, one car, two cars, you're behind 18 cars all of a sudden. If they had the technology and everything to beat you, you know what I mean? Because they all share it.

Q. You expect NASCAR to do more in the future to try to promote these start-up teams or is it just too far down the road at this point?

BOBBY LABONTE: You know, beats me. I think it's probably too far down the road, I guess. I don't know. It might be, might not be. It's just harder. Everything just costs more. They're doing everything they can to make it not cost as much. The teams are smart enough, you know, it's -- on the -- say, you know, we'll pick one item. You know, the team's got five cars, 20 or 40 engineers, money, this, this, this. You know, they pick up a little bit of an advantage. Boom, they take off. They're light-years ahead of you because it takes so much to get that little bit any more.

Q. Past success in Atlanta, pretty good indicator you handle that track well. It's been said that is one of the tougher tracks to drive. Jimmie Johnson said he thought it would be more of a handful with the tire, spoiler combination. What are your thoughts going in there on what you'll need to do to continue your success?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, we had a test down there the other day, a one-day test. People tested two days. We were there for one day. It seemed like it was -- it didn't seem as bad as I anticipated it being. Like Vegas the tires fell off quite a bit. Atlanta they always fall off, but they didn't fall off any more than they did last year, you know. Again, we didn't run in traffic. We ran by ourselves. The multiple-lap runs that we did, you know, we've gained on it all day. I have struggled there the last two races so I kind of feel better than I did then for those two. I don't feel quite so bad about it as I did before. I mean, I'm kind of looking forward to getting down there and starting off because you still have a lot of grooves down there to work with. Even Vegas, I watched on top of the truck after we fell out, and Vegas even got better than I anticipated. So I don't think it's going to be as bad as maybe I thought if I hadn't gone to test. So I feel pretty good about it. I think that the short spoiler is going to cause the cars to get loose in traffic. But, you know, as far as everything else goes, I think it will be okay.

Q. Why are you so good there? Is it just your disposition, your driving style, patience, cool demeanor on what's supposed to be a really hot, dangerous track?

BOBBY LABONTE: Man, I'd like to agree with all of them or none of them. I'm not sure which. You know, I don't know if it's a freak situation that I've won six races there and haven't won six at Martinsville. You know what I mean? I don't know. Just that I like that racetrack. I've always run pretty good there. You know, just enjoy going back. The cars that we've had that we've won with, we've had cars that were dominant, we've had cars that were mediocre that we've made better, and we've run second on the last lap and somebody ran out of gas. We kind of won at different angles. Just a place that I run good at, and I can't explain why.

Q. Is this a track you have to go in respecting or a track that you can't let intimidate you? How do you approach a fast track like this?

BOBBY LABONTE: You know, I think you respect it. You have to respect it. As fast as you're going there, you're in the throttle so much, you know, I think every person has a different approach to every racetrack. My approach there is no different to a lot of places. You have to respect it to the point where, you know, you got to be smart about it. You don't want to go in there and say, "Well, I'm going to (inaudible) for 30 laps and see what happens." That wouldn't be the smart thing to do. I think you just respect it. You know what's underneath it and you've got to drive to what your ability to the car is that day.

Q. Not to beat on this rough stretch you're going through, but when you go through a situation like this, do you see your crew also frustrated from the tire changers to the engine shop?

BOBBY LABONTE: I don't really see that right now. Daytona was frustrating. I mean, I was personally frustrated because I was looking forward to that day more so than I've looked forward to Daytona in a few years just for the fact of we were doing pretty good in the practices and the race we got shuffled out of the last three laps of the shootout, both shootouts, I guess, the Gatorade shootout also. I was like, we're going to be okay. I mean, I thought we were going to be good. This past weekend was, you know, devastating. Does that mean that the crew's down? No, huh-uh. I talked to not every one of them but all that I could talk to before I left, on the radio before we packed it up. I said, "Well, I guess maybe what they'll have to remember us for this year is the comeback we're going to have." You know, that pumped those guys back up. Not saying that's all that it takes. But we got a great pit crew. They've showed us that. Unfortunately, we only got to show it one race. Steve is doing a great job. It's frustrating for me for him because here he's put in this position. It's like, okay, we're doing okay, but we just haven't -- if we could just finish two of the races we didn't finish, it would be a whole different outlook. It is frustrating. But I think the guys know that it's not something awful. It is something that we can't control. It's nobody's fault. We have to keep going. They understand that. Those guys are strong enough to understand that. We know we need to work on things to get better, but it's not that we can't do it. But they understand that -- we're all doing the right thing, it's just two races there's something that happened that we couldn't control, they couldn't control. Luckily it's just early in the season and we just have to, you know, work hard to keep going.

Q. And the experience factor you talked about, being with the team for 11 years, some of those guys have been with you for a while. I'm assuming that helps play into keeping everybody's heads calm?

BOBBY LABONTE: It does. I mean -- I mean, it's a team sport, you know. We all know that there is -- we all want to be on top all the time because it's a whole lot more fun. But, you know, we'll see what this is going to be about here. I mean, we can easily -- you know, I can get frustrated at myself, they can get frustrated. But when it comes down to game time, we have to get going. We all have to pull together. I'm not at the shop today. I'm a lot quieter today than I was if we would have finished fifth. I'm down in the dumps myself. But at the same time when I get to that racetrack on Friday morning, I got to be with the right game face. I can't be down in the dumps no more. I can be down in the dumps today just because it's frustrating. But they can't be when it comes time to go race and I can't be when it comes time to go race. But right now let me be me and let them be them. When we get racing, we'll all be a little bit smarter because we'll all have experienced good times and bad times together.

Q. With the new grinding on Lowe's Motor Speedway, how do you think that's going to affect just the racing in general there?

BOBBY LABONTE: You know, I don't know. I was down there riding my go-kart the other day in the infield. I saw it was ground. I talked to Humpy Saturday -- Friday, I didn't ask him about it. You know, it had gotten pretty rough obviously. It just depends on what kind of grooving it does, and does it tear the tires up, is it just smoother. I mean, it could be -- if it's faster, does that make for better racing? Not necessarily. But if it's multiple groove faster, that's okay, too. Without getting on the racetrack, I'm not sure. I would hope and think that what he did will make it just -- will smooth it out and not necessarily make the tires wear or the groove be just, you know, above the places that were the hardest hit or something like that. I didn't go out there and look at it because the Petty driving school was out there, so I didn't get to go. Anyway, I hope it will just make it better, make the competition better and the race better. I mean, of course it's kind of hard to beat because Charlotte is usually a pretty good race anyway.

Q. Discussing your career, what would you say your high point and low point's been thus far over the years?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, you know, I guess the high point would be winning the championship, I guess. That would be the biggest high point, you know. Winning your first race, winning the championship, all your wins, stuff like that. But the championship's obviously the high point. You know, I don't want to say I'm at a low point right now because, you know, deep down inside, we all know that somebody's at a lower point than I am. I don't dare say that this is a low point for me because it can always get worse, you know. But I guess I could say right now it stinks worse than at any other time (laughter). You know, I've had races at Pocono, Pennsylvania, when I left there, I was so frustrated I was ready to, you know, just strangle myself, you know what I mean? But then it's a short period of time. But, you know, I'd say, you know, without being smart, I'd say, well, obviously right now is the worst time that I've had. But, I mean, it could be worse and I've had other times that felt just as bad, too. They just didn't last as long.

Q. In working with the Gibbs organization, do you notice any differences, and I'm certain it has to be from an observational standpoint, but differences by the fact you're working for someone who is a coach versus someone who is maybe a car owner, if that makes any sense?

BOBBY LABONTE: Yeah. Well, I think the biggest part -- I'd say the best part is everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. I mean, trust me, on days like today or if we're not running good, like the question was earlier, what do you feel the last how many races since you haven't won, I probably speak up more, you know, and show frustration more than when you're running good. Obviously, when you're running good, you don't go in there and say, Hey, we need to work on something. But going back to the family, the Gibbs family, what Joe has been a coach, was not a coach and now is a coach again, his philosophy is extremely important to me just for the fact that he has so much experience doing a lot of things in a teamwork environment and just as a good person, as an individual, has made me a better person. Now, that doesn't mean that we go in there, like I said earlier, I think it's a family situation, but no different than most families, you're going to argue at some time, and we do that. But at the end of the day, I mean, we're all going to walk away, give each other a hug and say, We're in it together. But I think just his respect for people and his respect for the team environment, you know, no matter what we go through he knows that we give each other 110%. He looks at things, obviously sometimes you got to look at dollars and cents, but at the same time it's like our involvement with all of our sponsors, not just Interstate Batteries, they go beyond dollars and cents, they're personal relationships. Norm Miller is a personal relationship friend of mine and his and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. So that's what he brings to it other than, "Here is dollars and cents, it makes sense for us to do this or us to do that."

Q. Back in a truck this weekend. Talk about your expectations for that.

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I'm looking forward to it. We tested down there the other day. I thought we were pretty good. It's kind of hard to tell. There was only a couple other trucks there at the time we were testing. You know, just looking forward to it. The Morgan-Dollar team, I was able to drive that truck last year at Martinsville, Homestead. Randy Goss, the guys, they did a great job. We had a lot of fun. We were competitive in both races. Finished third at Martinsville, running second at Homestead, then spun up and the engine blew up. Look forward to getting back in that truck and running good at Atlanta.

Q. How different do you think it's going to be under the lights?

BOBBY LABONTE: Dark in places, I guess. I don't know. I don't know. The one night they ran there when it rained a few years ago, we fell out like on lap 20, so we didn't get to run at night. But I think -- we did test there the other night. It was late. You know, the lights brighten the track up. Didn't really change a whole lot for. For the fans it's going to be great. Night racing's always great. I know we can have too much of it, but at certain times, certain series, obviously it's a good situation. So I think if the weather holds up, Friday night is going to be exciting.

Q. You've only done this a few times in the past. When you did, did you learn anything from the truck race that you took over to the Cup race?

BOBBY LABONTE: You know, the trucks are a lot different. All the series are different, which is good. I think they need to be different. They don't all need to be the same. You have to be able to adjust, adapt to whatever. I kind of hate that we got away from the V6's years ago so fast to get more like a Cup motor. But anyway, I think that -- you know, I think you just learn the racetrack. I think you learn things on the racetrack, in the tire, in the feel of stuff more so than, you know, a hold -- you're going to be in the throttle a lot more because it has a 390 carburetor on it. As a driver, you learn stuff. You might not be able to say, Hey, Steve, I think we ought to put this spring, I think we need to run this track bar here. The aero package is so much different between the two. The chassis are different, the shocks are going to be different. You know what I mean? You just can't take both and both and I think apply it. I think as far as in my case, you know, you go out there and learn more about the racetrack than anything else.

Q. You'll have Dennis Setzer as a teammate. Talk about your relationship with him right now.

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, Dennis, he's a neat individual. He's a great guy. We used to race against each other at Caraway, finished first and second in points with him. You know, we're a lot alike in a lot of ways, I think. We ran that truck last year at Martinsville to Caraway to test the two trucks. His didn't drive as good. Mine drove good. His was a little bit faster, mine was a little slower, okay. But he got in mine. He run the same speed I did. I got in his, ran about the same speedy did. I said, You need to take this truck because if you feel more comfortable in it, you're going for a championship. He said, Well, we got another one at home. I said, it would be funny, if people that were here a long time ago that used to see us race, if they saw us here today, they would probably think we were crazy. Everybody thought we hated each other, but we didn't. We were just competitors. I don't think we've ever laid a fender on each other the whole time we were there racing for a year every Saturday night. We didn't touch each other. But we always would kid with each other about, you know, good race, good race, whatever. We talked to each other about good racing. You know, I think the world of Dennis. He's a really neat guy. I hope he can go out there and win a bunch of races and the championship.

Q. How much are you involved with the development of your nephew Justin Labonte?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I don't know how to answer that. You know, I just try to help out when I can. I mean, I'm not very -- probably not the best teacher in the world, I guess. I can just say, for example, I mean, if he needed to ask me something, I'd tell him. I don't run up there and tell him, and say, Hey, listen, the such and such is this, this is how you handle this media person, this is how you handle the draft this way, this is the better this and that. I mean, I think he can figure that out on his own. But, you know, at the same time I always keep an eye on him. Like Saturday before the race start, I walk down, he's sitting in the car. I say, In my practice session that I just had, my car was like this over there, okay? I'm not going to tell him what air pressure to run because his crew knows that. I don't need to know that. I'm not going to tell him what springs to put in the car because he's driving it, not me. But at the same time if I say, Hey, the track seems really, really greasy over here in the middle groove, in the middle of the racetrack, I'm going to go tell him that. That's kind of where I'm at on it. We got go-karts, we race them against each other, so we practice that way.

Q. Is that how you started?

BOBBY LABONTE: I started off in quarter midgets. We're just in a midlife crisis thing.

Q. The family atmosphere at Joe Gibbs. With the struggles Joe went through this past football season, him being a man of faith, how does he keep you keep things in perspective when times are tough?

BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I honestly haven't talked to him since Daytona. I'm expecting a call any moment because I know -- I don't know where he's at, but I know he's been too busy -- I know he's busy on his part, and that's fine. But we can definitely relate on our careers. You know, on his career as a coach, Super Bowl champions, to this past season, they struggled. So there's no doubt that, you know, he understands both sides of it. But, you know, JD and I, we talked yesterday, we're going to talk some more tomorrow. He relates through him a lot of stuff when he can't get to everybody. But at the same time, I mean, I've had -- I'll get home and there will be a note in the mail. It will be addressed to my wife and it's from Joe Gibbs. Or I'll get my dad, my dad, he'll say, I got a note from Joe yesterday. He's thinking about us, praying for us, keep up this, great job, thanks for being who you are, little things like that that go a long ways. You know, that right there, I just know that when it comes to a person that you, you know, respect and people -- other people respect different people, but in my life, what I'm doing today and who I'm closest to, I mean, he is a guy who I respect a lot because the character that he is and the faith that he has and understanding that he has with, you know, life in general.

DANIEL PASSE: Thank you very much. Thanks, Bobby, for joining us. Good luck this week in Atlanta. Thanks everybody for your participation.

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