A year ago, Terry Labonte was riding high.
He was in the midst of a string of seven consecutive top-five finishes, including a victory in the UAW-GM 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, that carried him to his second Winston Cup championship.
Unfortunately for Labonte, that win on Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval was the last of his 18 victories. He’s gone 30 races without a win.
Heading into today’s race at Charlotte, Labonte is looking for something to re-energize what has been a particularly disappointing second half of the season.
Following the Jiffy Lube 300 at Loudon, N.H., in July, Labonte held a three-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in the Winston Cup standings.
In the 10 races since, he’s fallen to sixth and trails leader Gordon by 622 points and fifth-place Dale Earnhardt by 62.
“We’ve had a lot of things go wrong and it’s been a pretty tough stretch,” Labonte said. “But a win this week would really give the team a big boost, like it did last year.”
Like night and day
Same track, very different conditions.
That’s the difference between the Coca-Cola 600, a race begun in the late afternoon and completed under the lights, and the UAW-GM 500, strictly an afternoon affair.
“The race in the spring (the 600) is a challenge because you know you have to set up for what the race track is going to do as it gets colder and darker as the sun goes down,” Steve Hmiel, team manager for Roush Racing, said.
“But the fall race is a challenge, too,” Hmiel said. “Although you’re running entirely in the daylight, it comes in the part of the year when everyone’s thinking real hard about Winston Cup points. So there’s more mental pressure on you to do a real good job in the fall, and the spring race is more of an environmental challenge.”
Car owner Felix Sabates says he understands why NASCAR president Bill France Jr. made a deal to send Winston Cup teams to Japan for exhibition races.
The three-year deal began with a race last year on a modified road course set up at Suzuka. This fall, it will include another event at Suzuka and a race on the new oval at Twin Ring Motegi, where the CART Indy-car series will hold an official race in March.
Some teams have complained about the time-consuming and expensive trip, while others have simply refused to take part, despite some determined arm-twisting from NASCAR.
“From Bill France’s side, they want to get Japanese involvement,” said Sabates. “You’ve only got two American companies - Ford and GM. The Japanese (car) companies need to get involved.”
NASCAR rules bar foreign-made cars from stock car racing, but that could change.