Bobby Labonte is still the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion. Perhaps it is time to remind people of that, even though it is obvious Labonte, won't retain it.

What a difference a year makes. That's an old line, but one nonetheless applicable, when reviewing Labonte's 2001 season. Last November, coming into the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Labonte already had clinched the NASCAR Winston Cup championship on the strength of a consistent season that included four victories.

Coming into this Sunday's NAPA 500 - with the rescheduled New Hampshire 300 as this year's season-ender, on Nov. 23 - Labonte is eighth in the series point standings, with only one victory. It has been a respectable follow-up to a remarkable 2000 campaign. Labonte, though, isn't satisfied with respectability. After all, he raised his personal bar considerably last season, taking Joe Gibbs Racing along for the ride. On the other hand, Labonte's disappointment is tempered by the fact that Gibbs team-mate Tony Stewart is running third in points this year.

"For the most part, for the whole season, I can't complain about it," said Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac. "It's all a lot of hard work like it was last year, but you've got to keep your nose to the grindstone and keep going. Even though this year we aren't going to win the championship, but knowing that we had it last year - we're a previous champion and it gives us confidence to hopefully do it again."

Labonte, 37, made personal history last year by winning the NASCAR Winston Cup championship for the first time. But he also made racing history. He and older brother Terry Labonte became the first set of siblings to win NASCAR Winston Cup titles. Terry - who turns 45 on Friday - was champion in 1984 and '98.

The main statistical difference between the 2000 season and 2001 for Labonte is the "DNF" (did not finish) category. Last season, Labonte was DNF-free. This season he has six DNFs, three because of accidents, three because of engine problems. That run of misfortune started in the season-opening Daytona 500; Labonte was caught up in a late-race accident that also sidelined team-mate Stewart. Labonta's Daytona finish: 40th.

He then rebounded like a champion, with a second-place finish in the very next race, at North Carolina Speedway. After that, much of the season's first half was a struggle. Labonte finally cracked the point standings' top 10 on June 10, He hasn't fallen out of that elite group since.

"Bobby has fought hard all year long," said his crew chief, Jimmy Makar. "He hasn't given up. Obviously, he has gotten frustrated, just like the rest of us, but never has he given up his attempt to overcome the things that we've had to do. I think hopefully that is because he is around a group of people that has a lot of belief in him and his abilities.

"We are just going through a time that a lot of people have gone through. We're looking to come out the other end of it an even stronger race team than we were by not having to go through this.

"What a difference a year makes? You hear it all the time. We were on top of the world at this point last year. Everything was going our way and things were looking great. It seems like a long time ago right now."

The present isn't all bad, though, Labonte does have 17 top-10 finishes, the latest coming last Sunday in the Pennzoil Freedom 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Throw in seven top-fives, and the sole victory at Pocono Raceway on July 29 (Pennsylvania 500 Presented by Pep Boys), and you have a solid season.

Here's something that should surprise no one: Makar says the No. 18 team is plotting a 2002 comeback. "Certainly when the season is over and done, we're going to be thinking championship and winning three or four races throughout the course of [next] year, for sure," Makar said.

The reigning champion has kept his perspective - and his winning attitude. "This year has [still] been exciting," Labonte added. "It's been a little tough for us. We haven't quite run as good as we'd like to. But, we feel confident that we're getting back on track at times and we feel like we're heading back towards the end of the year, looking forward to next year.''

Other news:

NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader Jeff Gordon takes a 305-point lead into this Sunday's NAPA 500. If Gordon finishes 32nd or better, he will clinch his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Gordon also can clinch it if he merely starts the final two races of the season (Atlanta and New Hampshire).

Don't be surprised if Bobby Labonte starts that comeback this weekend. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, he has raced 11 times at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with four first-place runs and three second-place finishes.

From the archives:

Since Atlanta Motor Speedway joined the NASCAR Winston Cup series schedule in 1960, the track annually has had two NASCAR Winston Cup races - except for 1961, when it had three. The Festival 250 was held that year, in addition to the Atlanta 500 and the Dixie 400. The 250 was won by Fred Lorenzen, who averaged I 13.007 mph in a Holman-Moody Ford.