Bobby Labonte is poised to join sibling Terry as a season's title
On Sunday afternoon, just about every NASCAR driver was doing a
Bobby Labonte impersonation. In hauler after hauler in the garage
area at Pocono Raceway, TV sets were tuned to The Weather Channel
to see if Mother Nature was going to cooperate with NASCAR's
plans to run the Pocono 500. She didn't, and because of rain the
race was postponed until Monday, when it was won by Jeremy
Labonte, you see, is a Weather Channel nut. He watches it
religiously, rain or shine, following fronts and storms as if
they were characters in a soap. "It never sits still," Labonte
says of the weather. "You can watch it for a half hour, then go
away and come back and see how it's changed." He proudly wears a
TWC jacket given to him by weatherman Jim Cantore after a private
tour last year of the channel's studios in Atlanta.
You can't blame Labonte's competitors for trying to be like him
in as many ways as possible. Over his last 25 races, stretching
back into last season, he has finished worse than ninth only five
times. Since replacing Dale Jarrett as the driver of Joe Gibbs's
number 18 car in 1995, Labonte has gone from being known as the
younger brother of two-time Winston Cup champ Terry to being
known as a premier racer.
It hasn't been an easy road. In late 1994, Bobby was told he had
Graves' disease, which landed him in the Mayo Clinic in
Jacksonville, where a dosage of medication was given that almost
required him to be quarantined. He then sheared off the tip of
his left shoulder blade when he crashed early in the '95 season
and did the same to his right shoulder blade in '99. Through all
these troubles, he has won 13 races, including five last year.
This year Labonte has prevailed only once, and that victory was
attributable in large part to his team's mastery of the elements.
At Rockingham, in the second race of the season, most teams ran
as hard as they could right off the bat, thinking a hard rain was
going to fall. But Labonte's crew studied the Doppler images at
the track weather station and decided that the rain would hold
off and that Labonte should conserve his car. His Pontiac was the
class of the field over the last 50 laps.
Since then, Labonte has had three second-place finishes and three
thirds. But because NASCAR's points system rewards consistency,
the steady, soft-spoken Texan doesn't have to brood if he gets
nosed out. "We've lost by margins you could fit in a measuring
cup," he says of his season. "Those are hard to swallow. But we
know the key is getting top-five finishes, and if you have a bad
day, don't let it be as bad as it could be."
That was what Labonte did on Monday. His car gave him fits all
weekend during practice--"the worst it's been all year," he
said--but he still finished 13th. After 15 races his Winston Cup
points lead over Dale Earnhardt stood at a scant 57. Remarkably,
in a sport with so many prominent families, no set of brothers
has won Winston Cup points titles. It doesn't take a
meteorologist to forecast that there's a good chance of that
Craig Is Out as CEO; Rahal Is In
Overshadowing Helio Castroneves's win in Sunday's Grand Prix of
Detroit was the forced resignation of CART CEO Andrew Craig two
days before the race. He was replaced, on an interim basis, by
The removal of Craig was something of a put-up-or-shut-up move
for Rahal, because he had been one of Craig's most vocal critics
on CART's 12-member board of directors. "I don't think anyone is
satisfied with where we are," says Rahal, who owns the cars
driven by 1999 Indy 500 champ Kenny Brack and Max Papis. "We can
be better as an organization and as a sport. Even though this is
interim, I see it as a mandate to take CART to a new level."
CART's biggest problem is dwindling attendance and TV ratings for
its races at a time when NASCAR's numbers are flourishing.
Securing a new TV deal--the current seven-year contract with ESPN
expires in 2001--is at the top of Rahal's to-do list, along with
setting up a meeting with Indianapolis Motor Speedway president
Tony George to resolve the CART-IRL feud. CART's 2001 schedule
also must be finalized.