Earnhardt News
2001 Season

GM teams take aim for 2001
By David Poole, The Charlotte Observer

(January 24, 2001)
Back when Joe Gibbs was a football coach for the Washington Redskins and just thinking about getting into Winston Cup racing as a car owner, one of the first people he turned to for advice was Rick Hendrick.

In 2000, while Hendrick's multicar operation regrouped after a year of tumultuous change, Gibbs' team moved to the pinnacle of the sport.

Bobby Labonte gave Pontiac its first championship since 1989 and his teammate, Tony Stewart, led the circuit with six victories.

It was the sixth-straight year that a General Motors driver had won more races than anybody in the sport. The previous five, that honor had belonged to a Hendrick team - Jeff Gordon four times and Terry Labonte once.

This year, it will be the Gibbs teams' turn to play king of the hill in the GM camp. They'll have to do it with fewer friends flying the Pontiac colors, however, as Bill Davis Racing and Petty Enterprises have switched from Pontiacs to Dodges for 2001. Chevrolet has everybody back except for the teams now owned by Chip Ganassi, which also have switched to Dodge.


Joe Gibbs Racing

Bobby Labonte hasn't been ducking the question about his chances to repeat as champion in 2001.

"It's probably going to be one of the toughest things to do, but that's definitely what we're going to try to do," said Labonte, who won four races last year. "Second is not that much fun when you've figured out how to do first.

"We're not going to go out there and say, `Oh yeah, this is what we're going to do.' But I do know that we're all pretty well pumped into trying to do it again if all the cards fall right."

Labonte's remarkable consistency on the way to last year's championship can best be appreciated in view of one statistic - of the 10,167 total laps run in 34 races last season, Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac completed all but nine of them.

If you're expecting Labonte to stress out due to the rigors of being the reigning champion, don't. His brother, after all, is Terry "Iceman" Labonte and sometimes Bobby can make Terry look excitable.

"I did everything that was the coolest thing that you could probably ever wish you could do," Labonte said of what's happened to him in the offseason. "It was the first time, but it was like, `You know, I might not ever get to do this again.' "

If you're looking for excitable, of course, you need look no further than Tony Stewart, the other half of the Gibbs 1-2 punch.

Stewart's temper got the best of him a couple of times in 2000 and that might happen again. But he's got nine victories in his first two seasons and if even a little bit of his teammate's consistency ever rubs off on him, then Stewart's going to be a title contender for as long as he wants to be.

"I want to win a Winston Cup championship," Stewart said. "We all strive to do that, but there are so many variables. When you have 43 cars starting a race and seven or eight pit stops that can dictate how your race ends, there are just so many variables involved.

"Do we have the goal in mind? Yes. Am I setting my goal for 2001 that I am going out to win the championship? No. To sit there and say that's your only goal is foolish."


Hendrick Motorsports

Jeff Gordon won three races and three poles last year, statistics many drivers would trade for in a minute. But coming off seasons of 10, 10, 13 and seven wins, three seemed paltry by Gordon's standards.

"I think that when you get through a season like we had last year, it just makes you stronger," said Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevys will be blue with orange flames this year, his first year without the rainbow paint scheme. "There were times that we struggled and we had to dig real deep and pull ourselves out of it.

"I think it brought us a lot closer as a team. I think that the success that this team and I had over the past years is what allowed us to get through a year like that. When you win a lot of races and you've won championships, if you have a bad year, you know what it took to get to the top and you know you've just got to work real hard and come together and find it. I think that helped us, knowing that no matter what, we were going to come out of it and get better."

Terry Labonte's 2000racing season was rough by anybody's standards. He had three top-five finishes, but finished 17th in points and saw his record streak of 655 consecutive starts end at Indianapolis because of injuries he suffered in a wreck at Daytona in July. Making matters worse, he eventually found out the problem had been misdiagnosed, and without that he wouldn't have missed two starts in the No. 5 Monte Carlos.

Jerry Nadeau and the No. 25 team ran surprising well last year even before Nadeau went to victory lane for the first time in the season-finale at Atlanta. Nadeau had 15 top-10 starts in his first full year with Hendrick Motorsports and ran in the top five at Indy and New Hampshire before getting the breakthrough win.

"I think I learned a lot as a race car driver," Nadeau said. "Before, I wasn't very patient, I had to go as fast as I could. Now that I have the cars to win races with, I can be a little more patient and learn a little faster. I would have been nice to start my career here, no doubt."

Jimmie Johnson will also run a fourth Hendrick car in a handful of races this year, preparing for a full slate in 2002 when he and Gordon will share a new shop at the Hendrick compound in Harrisburg.


Richard Childress Racing

Dale Earnhardt could not find any late-season momentum to challenge Labonte for the championship, but he did edge Jeff Burton for second in the final standings and he did finish in the top 10 in 24 of the season's 34 races.

Earnhardt's victories in 2000 were both spectacular - edging Labonte by a few feet at Atlanta in the spring and then staging a miraculous late-race charge at Talladega in October. His qualifying efforts were not spectacular, however, with his No. 3 Chevy starting 30th or worse 11 times last year.

"Joe Gibbs and Bobby Labonte have moved the bar up higher and made us work a little harder," Earnhardt said. "I think we can do that. I think all of the guys at RCR are ready to go out and race for a championship this year. I know I am.

"We want to win another championship. Everybody sets that competition level higher each year, and you have to work to get there. You have to commit yourself that that's what you're going to do. I'm up for it."

Mike Skinner, driver of the No. 31 car, is still looking for that elusive first points race victory. He'll have to do it without crew chief Larry McReynolds, who's now a television analyst. Royce McGee moves up from within the team to be the new crew chief. Lowe's is back as primary sponsor after a puzzling spat threatened that relationship in the second half of 2000.

Kevin Harvick, who drives for Childress in the Grand National series, will run in selected Cup race this year as well.


Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Earnhardt and his lieutenants like to tell people that every team DEI has had in the Winston Cup, Grand National and Truck series has won races. Michael Waltrip has received that message.

"I am not intimidated," said Waltrip, who will drive for the new No. 15 team at DEI this year in search of his first career Winston Cup victory after 462 starts. "I am not scared of this task at all. I welcome the opportunity because so few people get the chance they think they really need, and I think I've got it."

The two returning teams put together one really good season in 2000 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was outstanding in the season's first half and Steve Park was one of the big stories of the second half.

Earnhardt Jr. won at Texas and Richmond and then won The Winston in May, but never had a top-10 finish after the first weekend in June.

The driver said the team began to bicker internally when things went sour and that he felt burned out by the end of his rookie season in the No. 8 Chevrolet. Still, he finished 16th in points and won more than $2.6 million.

Park was 20th in points in July and had earned just one top-10 finish in a 15-race stretch before he got his first career win at Watkins Glen in August. That sparked a run of 11 finishes of 11th or better in the final 14 races and a climb to 11th in the final points standings.

What's next?

"I guess with a couple more wins," Park said. "The guy that I work for kind of likes victory lane.

"I'm looking for great things really out of the team. I think we showed in the second half of the season that the team has matured to a team capable of running up front and in the top 10 and being consistent. That's the name of the game"


Other General Motors teams

Aside from Joe Gibbs Racing, Pontiac's only other multicar team this year is newlywed. Ken Schrader's No. 36 team and Johnny Benson's No. 10 plan to move into a new combined headquarters in February.

Benson's team was on the financial ropes last season when MB2 Motorsports bought it, but its precarious status didn't show up on the track. Benson flirted with victory in the Daytona 500 and finished 16th or better in 11 of the final 19 races to move from 22nd to 13th in points - despite not making the season's fourth race at Atlanta.

Schrader joined John Andretti and Bobby Hamilton as the only drivers to make every race last season without getting a top-five finish. "We had a pretty dismal year last year," Schrader said. "I wound up 18th (in points), which is the worst I have ever finished. We just got caught off guard; we thought we'd run better than that."

The No. 14 Pontiacs owned by A.J. Foyt will have former Truck series champion Ron Hornaday behind the wheel this season. Kenny Wallace is the driver of the No. 27 Grand Prix owned by Eel River Racing. The team has no sponsor, but is pressing forward with plans to run a full season.

Wallace was in one of the two Andy Petree Racing-owned Chevrolets last year, the No. 55 that Bobby Hamilton will drive in 2001. Hamilton comes in off a terrible year at Morgan-McClure but new teammate Joe Nemechek gives him reason to hope. Nemechek's 15th-place points finish Petree's No. 33 Chevys was Nemechek's career best.

Robby Gordon takes over the No. 4 Monte Carlos at Morgan-McClure after trying to run his own team last year. Rick Mast, one of the odd men out in the driver shuffle from last season, is in line to drive the No. 50 Chevrolets owned by John Monsam on a partial season's schedule. Dave Marcis plans 10 to 12 races in his No. 71 Chevrolet.



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