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January 18, 2003

Bobby Labonte


Q. Bobby, a lot of changes at Joe Gibbs Racing during the past year. Is the outlook bright for the No. 18 team?

BOBBY LABONTE: I think so. I am excited about it. Fatback (Michael McSwain) has assembled a great crew. We have a lot of confidence going into the season. We've had two really good tests so far which is a long ways from 30 something races, but I think we're hopefully on the right track. Jimmy (Makar) has moved up to more of a manager position and is going to help both teams out. I think as the target keeps moving, we have a pretty good idea where to hit it at, so hopefully we can come out of the box pretty fast.

Q. Can you forget about last year?

BOBBY LABONTE: I think we probably learned more last year than we have in years before that because when you are doing bad, you make mistakes and you don't want to make those again. So we are going to turn that around, of course. We're going to figure that we have to come out of the box, we have to come out better than we did last year. We have to make changes that need to be made instead of sticking to what used to work. So I think last year, hopefully, was a lesson for us not to do that again. I'm not saying we won't -- we've got to work hard and be on top of things better than we ever have been. I take it as a lesson well learned. We've got to work real hard, come out of the box, go fast and stay that way.

Q. There is a lot of talk about NASCAR softening tires. Would that help you as a veteran?

BOBBY LABONTE: I think that the soft tire is a better way to go. I think that racing is -- we get to the point where we are dependent too much on the aero and stuff like that where the soft tire and less aero would be better for side-by-side racing than where we are at today. So I like that for that part. We can make our car better on the hard tire. We just didn't do a good job of it. We had races where we did better than others, it wasn't the fact the tire was harder or softer. It was the fact that the changes we made were better. So it didn't matter to me if the tires were brick hard, as long as we can figure it out, I don't think ...just to say in general, soft tire and less aero is a better combination for racing.

Q. What are the likes and dislikes that you have for the short tracks like Bristol, Martinsville?

BOBBY LABONTE: What I do like about Martinsville or don't? What I do like about it is I won there. What I don't like about Martinsville is I didn't win more than just once. I wish I would have won more. I have a mind set where I like all of the tracks that I go to. If you don't like a road course, you are not going to run good. If you don't like Daytona or Talladega, you are not going to run good. Same thing goes for Martinsville and Bristol. If we can get a race car going good there, it doesn't matter where you are at, whether or not you are a road racer - but if you as fast at Sears Point, for instance, you are going to like it. I enjoy going to Bristol and Martinsville. I have only won one short track race. I do better on mile and a half tracks. It's not that I don't like Martinsville or Bristol, I just don't run as good. Last year we did win; had a lot better setup and things worked out. I am looking forward to Bristol. Question was asked to me about three favorite race tracks. I said Bristol night race because I have not won there yet and I want to win that race. I think we can go out and win every race. Of course it is going to be hard to do, you have to have that mindset and confidence to go into it. So when you go to Martinsville and you don't think you are going to win, you're not going to win.

Q. Bobby, once the cutting is all done at that beginning of the year what do you think the effect the common template is going to be on the competition?

BOBBY LABONTE: I think that it's going to be tough. I looked at the practice speeds from Daytona and everybody is relatively close. I think Tony was a 10th of a second off of us and he is 14 spots behind us. I know that is just testing; that is not the qualifying. But every year we always say it ever place we go to, well, the field is a lot tighter, a lot tighter field. First to 40th was 4/10-of-a-second, now it's going to be 3/10 of a second. So I think the common template is going to make that even closer because it's going to bring the field tighter together

Q. So does that go back if we leave it the same way, is it going to be harder to pass?

BOBBY LABONTE: Sometimes, probably will be and can be. A lot more emphasis on the engineers, communication between the driver and crew chief to get what used to be a 10th of a second or 10th and a half second advantage over somebody; now might just be a half a 10th. It's going to be back to the old 2 tires, 4 tires or a pit stop or gas only ... the strategy goes back into it. The common template will make things like it was. But just tighter. Unless they cut the spoilers off and put soft tires on them, then it might not.

Q. Although the points pay the same at every race track, if you look at this season, if you consider everything being equal, are there certain tracks on the schedule that can be key places for a points race, certain places that you look at the beginning of the season and you feel like you need to be well?

BOBBY LABONTE: I don't know that there's any certain key tracks that we don't already know about. Daytona and Talladega is always key because what if something happens there. You can also look at Martinsville, Bristol, tracks like that. Anything can happen. Then you go to road courses. There is 29 cars finishing on the lead lap; if you have a tire go down with two laps to go you are going to finish 30th. I think the big key is the first 10 races. I mean, there is all kind of races in the first 10 races, all kind of race tracks. To me, the first 10 races are important. If you can get out the first 10 races like we did in 2000 ... we won a race right away, finished second a few times, boom, boom, boom; all of a sudden we are in the top-3 in points. That right there helps you out more, more than Talladega or Sonoma in June because you get your confidence and team morale built up and you get the first third of the year out of the way and you are like hey, we are not 10th in points; we are third in points. That gets you confidence going to a track that you are not as good at, you are going to be better at it. I don't look at it tracks as much as the segment of the year. If you start off good, hopefully you don't lose that momentum.

Q. Can you put yourself in the fans' shoes and remember someone that you were a fan of and go their autograph for the first time?

BOBBY LABONTE: I know I got Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, I got their autographs when I was growing up. Your expectations when you meet people like that are -- just -- you sit in line for a long time and when you get up there you want their autograph and you are excited to be there. You are excited to get their autograph and take it back and cherish it. I found my Harry Gant souvenir I got in '93 or '94 for his final ride. Now, if I would have brought it, I would have had him sign it for me today. But I didn't bring it. When I was growing up, there were people that I would get autographs from; it's always a good feeling that you go out there and stand in line, the guy appreciates it and you take it home and your dad says, we will put this in a plaque for you. So we will save it. It's always a neat feeling. I appreciate what they do. I appreciate what the fans do because they have been standing outside in the cold all night long and all morning long. And to have the patience to sit there for that long a time for them is more than me having patience signing all of that stuff. I think, they are waiting for that one moment to tell you something or ask you to do something for their kid or something like that. I try to make it as special as you can for them because that goes a long way.

Q. Bobby, having been a fan of racing probably all your life and watching the Indy car guys in your spare time,does it feel weird to have a Mears and a Fittipaldi on the Winston Cup circuit?

BOBBY LABONTE: It does sound different. Those guys have racing in their blood and they come from great racing backgrounds. They will be great racecar drivers in the Winston Cup Series, I'm sure. It is different. But I know when they put their helmet on they are like me. It's a different series but they still do the same thing on race day, drive that race car and try to win and do the best they can to have the best day and the best strategy and best results for their team. It is a little different name-wise, but it will bring a lot more to the sport than, say, if they were not here.

Q. I want to get Bobby's thoughts about the Daytona 500 this year. Just your thoughts about the race.

BOBBY LABONTE: It's 500 miles. It's in Florida. Maybe I can win the lottery too. I'm am looking forward to it. We had a great test down there. Fatback is really pumped up about it. For the most part, I would say that we are looking forward to the next three races over Daytona just for the fact that we are probably, our speedway program is not what we would like for it to be, body wise, or stuff like that. They have worked real hard. It's great. I kind of heard him saying I wish I was better at it. I wish I knew how to go faster. I wish I knew how to go faster too. I look forward to it. It's just one of those big races you want to win. I haven't won it. We finished second once, top-5 once or twice. I'm looking forward to it. I'm not running the Bud Shootout this year ... didn't win a pole. I look forward to winning a pole this year; get back in that. Just looking forward to it. Can't wait to get started. I will be down there all week. I will start the week off right. The first 10 races we got to finish that race good, we want to be in the top-5 in points in the first 10 races at least.

Q. You had real good speeds down there in testing but how will that translate over three weeks from now when you have to go out and qualify, a lot of things will change between now and then?

BOBBY LABONTE: Yes, they will; that's why they call it testing, it's not qualifying. If we were all qualifying down there it would be different. I don't know where we will end up. I know that we've got what we got. The guys have worked hard in the motor room, in the fab shop, built cars right and left, new Chevrolets, and when we go back down there we will be competitive. That's all we can ask for because it's tough. Like I said a while ago, there is only a little bit between all of the cars. It's not much. If you build the right car, you will have a good one. If you don't you are going to suffer through the week. Hopefully we'll have it all dialed in. I'm looking forward to it.

Q. A lot of teams not only switching stuff around but teams like yours switch brands. Rusty Wallace switched brands. Why do you all do that?

BOBBY LABONTE: What is the advantage and why do we do it?


BOBBY LABONTE: It's a big difference between the Pontiac of last year and the Pontiac of this year. Whether we change from Pontiac to Pontiac or since we changed from Pontiac to Chevrolet, it is a big difference because the two makes are different. We are more like the Ford and Dodge like everybody said. Obviously we wanted to be in a bigger group of car owners and teams where there's more of that brand because that way it's a good barometer for us - if we are not as good, we can look at their stuff and say well, if he is not running that good but they are running good, we need to be like them. If we are all running bad, then we are all in the same boat. That is the big thing. It's a big change from the Pontiac to the new Chevrolet just as it was from the old Pontiac to the new one because they are all basically the same anymore. But we didn't because we wanted to be in a bigger group basically. We fought that for several years, not that it hurt us performance-wise but a lot of it was we couldn't go up in there when you only had two or three or four cars in the one group. So what's a few more cars, like I said, the big barometer thing will help us out; figure where we need to be. If we are not good, we need to work harder or need to go and talk about it?

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