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The ride's just starting

Past Winston Cup champs say demands on a driver's time are even greater after a title. Bobby Labonte is about to find that out.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


HOMESTEAD -- Terry Labonte walked hand-in-hand with his wife, away from the soda-soaked celebration and treble-heavy rendition of Cheeseburger in Paradise blaring at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It was a Winston Cup championship moment Bobby Labonte needed to experience by himself, without an older brother looking on.

"Nothing bad," said Terry, a two-time champion, when asked what his brother should expect as the sport's newest champion. "There's probably going to be a few more requests for appearances and things like that. But, hey, it's all part of it. It's all worth it."

One of the first post-championship requests actually came weeks before Sunday's Pennzoil 400 when representatives from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman called to set up appearances by Labonte.

"I've already been to the Letterman show, but I just sat in the audience," he said. "It really wouldn't be that much of a difference, would it?"

Making the rounds on the talk-show circuit is just one of the perks afforded to the series' top driver.

While he's in New York City for the Winston Cup awards banquet next month, he and his family will stay in a complimentary suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and he'll sit in a more prominent seat at the Late Show.

"There's nothing sweeter than being the champion, especially in New York," said Jeff Gordon, who has won three titles. "They treat you like a king."

Winning the Winston Cup title means newfound wealth, new business opportunities, preferential treatment and the realization you're one of only 24 drivers to have accomplished the feat in 52 years.

"The thrill of it all is sitting up at the head table in New York and looking out at the crowd, not sitting down looking up," said Darrell Waltrip, who won titles in 1981, '82 and '85. "That's when you realize you've done something.

"It's not all about just week in and week out. We do that all the time for nothing. It's about that last deal, that last go-around. You've got that tux on and you've got them shiny shoes on and you're going to stand up there and accept about a $3-million check and tell people how much fun you had doing it. It doesn't get any better than that."

Labonte will make about $8-million in total winnings this season, almost double the $4.7-million he made for finishing second in the standings last season and more than half of the $13.8-million he made in eight previous years.

But that doesn't include sponsorship and contract incentives that will boost his pay past $10-million.

"Just being in Winston Cup, you can already be set for life depending on what kind of life you want to live," Gordon said. "It just depends on what kind of toys and what kinds of things you enjoy. Some have expensive hobbies and some don't. Winning a championship doesn't all the sudden make you this multi-millionaire. You're already there."

There is a competitive advantage for the new champion as well.

"The manufacturers cater to you whether it's a Ford, a Chevrolet or a Pontiac," Waltrip said. "Whatever technology they get, they give it to you first."

But along with the financial rewards and royal treatment come commitments.

"I guess when you win a championship, you're expected to do a lot of stuff," Labonte said. "Trust me, if that's what you have to do to win a trophy, I think it's still all worth it."

Take it from 1999 champion Dale Jarrett, Gordon or Waltrip, who have won a combined seven championships: Labonte's life is about to change more than he can even imagine.

"I've already told Bobby to get prepared, get ready, for a very busy and hectic schedule," Gordon said. "I tell you what, winning the Winston Cup championship is one of the greatest thrills, but it's also some of the hardest work you'll ever do."

The series champion becomes a catch-all spokesman for NASCAR.

Sponsors want appearances and commercials. Media outlets want interviews and photo shoots. Fans clamor for autographs and conversations.

"All of the sudden, every sponsor we have on the side of that car comes out of the woodwork wanting you to do all their appearances and send you places," Gordon said. "It's something that takes time to get used to."

Jarrett can relate.

Early season struggles on the track this year and rumors about the stability of his team were attributed to distractions brought on by the championship.

"You can make the championship change your life as much or little as you want," Jarrett said. "It's going to change anyway. Certainly, just being the champion, there's a lot more demands. You can make it to where you don't have a free moment at all if that's what you choose to do."

The most difficult part comes in February, when the 2001 Winston Cup season begins with Labonte attempting to defend his title.

"I think the second year is the toughest," Gordon said. "You look at me. I won in 1995 and came back in 1996 and we challenged for the championship. I felt like we were never in it. I was so caught up in the championship (obligations)."

Added Waltrip: "The next one is the hard one. The first one, you don't really realize what it means until you win it and then you want to win it again. But that's when it gets hard."

Still, Labonte wouldn't trade his new position as the sport's best for anything. That's why he already is eager for next season.

"I think the drive is to get the trophy at the end of the year," Labonte said. "That's the big key. We're all trying to get the trophy because if we do, we will have accomplished something that nobody else did that year. I think that's what it's about. Everything else, good or bad, is just a bonus."

* * *

UP NEXT: NAPA 500, 12:40 p.m. Sunday, ESPN.

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