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Labonte’s win left forgotten after a year

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Peeking out the back of his hauler, Bobby Labonte watched as a lone fan wearing a sweat shirt celebrating the driver’s Winston Cup championship stopped to collect some souvenirs.

“See that guy?” Labonte said. “He remembers I won the championship last year.”

Yes, there are people who still realize Labonte is the champion of NASCAR. But 2000 is a distant memory the way this season has gone for him.

After leading the points race practically wire-to-wire last year in a season of consistency, Labonte has been up and down and all over the track since the season-opening Daytona 500.

He’s never been a factor in his bid to repeat, and it has taken a tremendous second-half surge for him to reach the top 10 in points. The 37-year-old Texan is ninth, a whopping 669 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

Labonte is quick to admit to frustration, but refuses to let this season diminish the accomplishment of 2000.

“I know what we did last year and I know how hard it was to do it,” Labonte said. “Winning a championship isn’t easy and repeating a second one is even harder. But just because we won’t win one this year doesn’t make last year any less special.”

Regardless, there’s a sense that the struggle has left Labonte a forgotten champion.

In the garage area, where the top teams often scrutinize another driver’s successful season, Labonte’s accomplishments are practically ignored.

Michael McSwain, crew chief for second-place driver Ricky Rudd, said he hasn’t looked at anything Labonte did last year as his team chases Gordon in the points race.

“What Bobby did last year doesn’t do us any good,” McSwain said. “He was too good all year long.

“If we were going to study anything of his, it would be from 1999, when he finished second in the points. We can learn a lot more from him there than we can from his championship.”

What Labonte has learned is that circumstances beyond his control have taken him out of the spotlight. The death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in the season-opening Daytona 500 has overshadowed everything in NASCAR.

Despite the sport being more popular than it was when Terry Labonte won the second of his titles in 1996, Bobby says his brother was busier with off-track appearances the next season.

He’s not upset by that, instead viewing it as a bit of a blessing.

“I’m still busy,” he said. “I still have a lot more on my schedule than I ever have, but it has calmed down since last winter and that’s meant more time to concentrate on other things.”

Dale Jarrett, who won the itle in 1999, knows about the fallout from a championship season. He finished fourth in points last year, far off of Labonte’s pace, but never let it spoil his celebration.

“Even if you don’t challenge for the title the next year, no one can ever take your Winston Cup championship away,” Jarrett said. “It’s something you have forever to enjoy.

“We still won races the next year. We were still successful. We just didn’t win the championship. There’s no shame in that.”

Still, such a decline for Labonte was unexpected.

A year ago, Labonte won four races, finished in the top 10 in 24 events and had nary a breakdown. He’s got just one victory this year and only 13 top-10s after 30 of 36 races.

Most alarming has been his failure to finish five times. The DNFs are his first since 1999, and have been the hardest part to accept.

“People get into you and wreck you and take you out of the race, and there’s nothing you can do about it,”” Labonte said. “And parts break and engines go.

“Why were we able to avoid all that for almost two years? If we knew, it wouldn’t be happening this year.”

But with his championship has come a calm that has allowed Labonte to take things in stride. Instead of scrutinizing this season and why things went wrong, he’s looking forward to next year and how to right things.

There was no looking ahead last year, when his position in the points made the team leery of trying anything new.

“We still want to win races and make up spots in the standings,” Labonte said. “But if we don’t, then we’ll shrug, say ‘Things happen,’and work on fixing them.”

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