Bobby Labonte's NASCAR Winston Cup title defence may have been a bitter disappointment for both Bobby and his Joe Gibbs Racing team but after scoring just his second victory of the 2001 season last weekend in Atlanta Labonte rounded out the year with a solid third place in Friday's New Hampshire 300 at Loudon.

Having to make up the postponed September 16th New Hampshire 300 on the day after Thanksgiving, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series once again invaded Loudon, New Hampshire yesterday to race in front of a chilly but dedicated crowd of approximately 91,000 fans.

While no one was really excited about returning the day after Thanksgiving to race, the size of the crowd made sure to get everyone pumped up and ready for the final event of what has been a long and emotionally taxing 2001 season.

For Bobby Labonte, driver of the No.18 Interstate Batteries sponsored Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac, he knew he had one last opportunity to try and pass Dale Jarrett for fifth-place in the final point standings and also a chance to gain his first victory at the one-mile oval since the Winston Cup first visited the flat one-mile oval in 1993.

Starting seventh based on car owner points as of September 16th, Labonte wasted little time showing he was capable of running with the leaders as he shuffled between fifth and 10th position for the majority of the day. After leading for four laps in the late going though, Labonte made a four-tire pit stop on the last stop and it proved to be his Achilles heel as he was not able to get around Sterling Marlin or Robbie Gordon to get back to the front in the final green flag dash to the finish line following the contentious collision between long-time race leader Jeff Gordon and his namesake Robby less than 15 laps before the end of the 300 lap event.

When the chequered flag flew, Labonte ended up third in the race and was not able to make up enough points on Jarrett who came home in tenth spot thus finishing sixth in the final point standings for 2001.

"The day started off good, explained Labonte in the infield media centre following the race. "That 45-minute practice session was good for us this morning. We needed all of it and then made some adjustments on the car afterwards. When the race started, it was pretty good. The Interstate Batteries Pontiac was good all day. The car seemed like it stuck pretty well all day. It was balanced really close from front to rear.

"The crew did a great job in the pits. We got our tires when we needed them and we stayed in the top five."

Labonte continued, "I chunked a little bit of right rear tire out a few times and got it to where it wasn't quite as bad. We got better as the day went on, as far as that goes. We ran in the top five all day, so we couldn't complain. We just had a good run - a solid run. We watched the guys in front of us finish first and second, and we finished third, so we couldn't complain about it. Like I said, the car was good - it was just a little bit too tight there at the end to try to get around the No.40 car. But, he (Sterling Marlin) was pretty stout."

When asked of the difference between the 2000 and 2001 season, Labonte remarked, "I think a lot of it came from the hardness of the tire that Goodyear brought. There was nothing wrong with that; it was just that we took a little while to probably get acclimated to it and comfortable with it. The confidence wasn't there to go fast on it.

"Then, we had six DNFs this year; we had zero last year. You can add those up and that's a lot. If we had averaged a 22nd place finish out of those six DNFs, I think we would have been right there where Jeff [Gordon] was or behind him just a little bit. That didn't help out, but hey, we're going to have that. If we can average them out to less than that a year, that's great. But, we probably didn't have all the confidence in the world on a harder tire and might not quite have gotten our set-ups just right the first part of the year and got them better towards the end. I do know that I am already excited about 2002 though. After a couple of weeks off, I will be ready to get started again."

With a win and a third place in the final two events of 2001, Labonte and the Gibbs team will at least enter the off-season in a positive frame of mind after a season where more often than not Labonte had good machinery but was unable to get that extra edge and challenge regularly for victory. Two wins, nine top-5's and no less than 20 top ten finishes in 36 starts is by no means a bad season and when you consider than around 100 points were lost for each of his six DNF's, had Labonte encountered the same reliability as he did in his Championship winning year, Jeff Gordon may not have had such an easy run to his fourth NWC title. At season's end Labonte was 551 points behind Gordon in the drivers standings.



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