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'Fatback' brings sizzle, intensity to Gibbs team

Crew chief Michael McSwain has shaken things up for driver Bobby Labonte.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing knew about crew chief Michael McSwain's race-day intensity, his tendency to fling a wrench or two after a bad pit stop.

No problem.

Intensity is good.

But driver Bobby Labonte and the rest of the No.18 team had one unsettling issue to sort out when McSwain arrived at the end of the 2002 season. What would they call him?

Surely not Fatback.

McSwain, a burly man with a gregarious personality when the car's engine is off, has for nearly 20 years gone, quite contentedly, by the nickname Fatback. But the buttoned-down types at JGR just didn't feel right calling him that.

At first.

Fatback won them over -- the man and the name.

"A lot of them felt funny," said McSwain, so comfortable with his moniker that his Jack Russell terrier is named Babyback. "I just told them, 'Most of us have been called worse, right?' Now they all call me Fatback. Even Joe calls me that. When he's trying to be proper he calls me Michael, but Fatback slips out."

It's infectious.

Sort of like front-running.

One month into the season, there is nothing awkward about the way McSwain appears to be rekindling Labonte's career. After two frustrating seasons, the 2000 Winston Cup champion is among the favorites to win today's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"I do feel confident that we are going to have some success this year in winning races and having a chance at the championship," said Labonte, a five-time winner at AMS. "I had positive emotions coming into the season. That stems from having Fatback coming on board and from making some changes in our race team."

Labonte and former crew chief Jimmy Makar spent eight years together at JGR; they formed a close friendship and tight bond. But the past two seasons, things went haywire on the track. Labonte, whose trademark is consistency, had trouble qualifying, got caught up in wrecks and just plain struggled.

Solutions proved elusive.

So, Makar made a difficult sacrifice, opting to move into a management role a few years ahead of schedule. In hiring his replacement, he looked for a crew chief whose personality was in contrast to the staid approach he and Labonte shared.

Someone to shake things up.

Who better than Fatback?

"I'm really excitable, really intense," said McSwain, 36, who established himself during four successful seasons with veteran Ricky Rudd. "I'm very expressive with how I feel and what I believe in and what I don't believe in. ... I think some of the guys are starting to understand that I'm not necessarily mad when I scream."

Last season, while working with Rudd at Robert Yates Racing, McSwain was captured on national television slinging wrenches at Kansas Speedway after a mistake during a pit stop. At Dover, cameras caught him punching the tool box after lug nuts were left loose.

No apologies.

"Sometimes I get emotional," he said. "But the sport needs that, huh? It doesn't need to be too ho-hum."

At JGR's pristine and palatial shop in Mooresville, N.C. -- which the No.18 team shares with Tony Stewart's No.20 team -- Makar the manager is the orderly type, his notes snapped into binders placed neatly on shelves. In the next office, McSwain's desk is hidden under piles of paper.

But it works.

A crash knocked Labonte out of the Daytona 500 but he has been solid since. He has three consecutive top-10 qualifying runs, including the pole last week at Las Vegas. He was a contender at Rockingham and finished fourth at Vegas to jump 15 places in points to 13th.

Confidence is building.

"When you take somebody like Bobby who's got the desire and the talent he's got, and now he's opened his mind back up to new ways and new ideas, I think he's going to be hard to handle," McSwain said.

Makar, the first person Gibbs hired 11 years ago when the Super Bowl champion coach decided to start a race team, remains an important part of the mix. Thanks largely to him, JGR's transition from Pontiac to Chevrolet this season has been smooth. Thanks to Fatback, it has texture.

"They say your perfect mate should be different from you, so maybe that's us," McSwain said of his relationship with Labonte. "We're two different kinds of people, but hopefully we both want the same thing -- to win a lot of races and be in contention for the championship. It's pretty cut and dried."

McSwain loves the simple things in life. Watching television with his wife, Deanna. Maybe going to a movie. Away from the roar of the racetrack, he is fun-loving and laid back.

And always Fatback.

"The only person who doesn't call me that is my mother," he said.

Give her time.

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