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Mr. Consistent back to old form

Five top-three finishes pull Bobby Labonte into the title chase heading into today's Pocono 500.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published June 8, 2003

Bobby Labonte is at it again.

Labonte was the epitome of consistency in winning the 2000 Winston Cup championship. After struggling for two years, Labonte looks like a contender in 2003.

He's in a groove.

Labonte has finished in the top three the past five races to climb from 15th to fourth in the series standings. He starts third today at Pocono Raceway, one of his best tracks.

"I really enjoy racing at Pocono and have done pretty well here in the past," said Labonte, 39, who drives the No. 18 Chevrolet. "We hope to continue the good fortune we are experiencing right now and maybe improve the finishing position a couple of spots."

Labonte is on an incredible hot streak. He was the runner-up at Martinsville, California and Richmond before slipping to third at Charlotte and Dover. He led laps in all five and has picked up bonus points in nine of 13 races. He won at Atlanta and has two poles, joining Ryan Newman (four) as the only multiple pole-winners this season. Labonte's six top-10 starts are two more than he had last year.

Mr. Consistent is back.

"I expect it out of him," driver Rusty Wallace said. "He doesn't surprise me. When he won the championship, I think his stats were incredible. He completed almost every single lap that year."

Well, almost.

In 2000, Labonte won four times with 19 top fives and 24 top 10s. He was running at the finish of every race - no DNFs - and finished outside the top 20 just twice. He completed all but nine of 10,167 laps. Though Labonte has had more misfortune this season than in 2000 - four finishes of 32nd or worse - he sees similarities in the efforts of his team, then and now.

"It's not about the driver," he said. "It's about everything: the crew, the car, the chassis, the bodies, the engines, the communication. The guys who work on this race car really make sure everything stays on it and we're on top of it. That's what happened in 2000."

Though it is hard to find a bad track for Labonte, he has been especially good at Pocono. He had three wins and six top 10s in a seven-race span from 1998-2001, but last year limped to finishes of 25th and 11th at the tricky triangular track.

"We seemed to be untouchable up here for a while," Labonte said. "Then it seemed the bottom fell out of it and we came crashing back down to Earth last year. ... Then again, we had a tough time everywhere last year, not just Pocono."

To explain Labonte's resurgence from a disappointing 16th place in the standings last season, most would point to the hiring of crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain. The emotional McSwain and laid-back Labonte have clicked more quickly than expected, but Labonte insists there is more to running up front every week than chemistry.

"That's all anyone wants to ask me nowadays is about what's different this season," Labonte said. "I try to be polite and honest with my answers when I admit to them that there's not one particular thing. I try to explain it's lots of little things that have made the biggest differences, but no one seems to believe me.

"I wish I knew what the magic is, but I just know right now everything seems to be working out great and I don't want to do anything to change that."

Nope, that would be inconsistent.

[Last modified June 8, 2003, 01:33:29]

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