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
"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."
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
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.
"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
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
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
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.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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