A year ago, Bobby Labonte led the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. With the exception of a one-race slip at Talladega, Ala., that dropped him to second place in the points race, he stayed out front all year and won the championship.
Now he's 25th in the standings. He's failed to finish four of the first seven races, and he's completed only 149 of 334 laps after blowing three engines and crashing during the season-opening Daytona 500.
When he won the championship, Labonte completed 10,158 of 10,167 laps. Now he's 392 points behind with 29 races remaining, including today's Virginia 500 at the Martinsville Speedway. That deficit is difficult, if not impossible, even after just seven races.
To put the hole Labonte has created in perspective, consider this: points leader Dale Jarrett would still be ahead even if he skipped the next two races and Labonte won both.
"Somebody else is going to have that golden year, and that's just the sport," said Mark Martin.
Martin also knows he won't have the golden year. Neither will his Roush Racing teammate, Jeff Burton, or Labonte's teammate Tony Stewart.
For that matter, five of the top-10 drivers from a year ago aren't ranked among the top-10 heading into Martinsville.
The biggest surprise is Burton, who was the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas before the season to win the championship. He's currently ranked 35th and still looking for his first top-10 finish of the season.
"Our chances are dwindling rapidly," Burton said. "It hurts me to say that, but what we need to do is get our (stuff) together. We need to get to where we can run well, and until we can do that we don't even need to worry about the championship."
Burton knows exactly why he's 521 points in arrears.
"We had a wreck at Daytona caused by the rules that are there," he said. "We had two wrecks caused by a driver (Robby Gordon) who had his head up his butt. We had an engine problem at Atlanta, we had a tire roll across pit road at Darlington (that prompted a penalty from NASCAR) and we had a tire fail at Bristol. End of story."
Jarrett has 1,056 points. He's the only driver to win two races this year. If not for the 19-car crash at Daytona that also included Labonte, Stewart, Burton, Martin and Jeff Gordon, Jarrett would have more than a 67-point lead over Gordon.
"I haven't seen any continuity in the racing," Burton said. "I've seen nobody hit it and be good every week."
Stewart has the best chances to rally of the preseason favorites. He's 17th in the standings, 330 points behind.
Andretti is 18th and Martin is 22nd.
PINK SLIPS: Pressure from sponsors and car owners to perform continues to create a delicate work atmosphere in racing.
Last week, two NASCAR Winston Cup Series crew chiefs got fired. Tim Brewer was released at Mike Wallace's No. 7 Ultra Motorsports team and Philippe Lopez was terminated at Ron Hornaday's No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing team.
"We needed to make a change with our Winston Cup program at Ultra Motorsports, and we needed to make an immediate change," said Jim Smith, car owner for Ultra. "It was a mutual decision between our former crew chief, Tim Brewer, and myself. This team was not running anywhere near its potential."
Four different crew chiefs and one driver, Robby Gordon, already have been fired during the first two months of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.
MARTINSVILLE ROADBLOCK: Maybe it's not such a good thing to win a race at the .526-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Four of the last six winners at Martinsville haven't won again.
Bobby Hamilton won the spring race in 1998; Ricky Rudd won the fall race in 1998; John Andretti won the spring race in 1999 and Mark Martin won the spring race in 2000, and none of them have visited Victory Lane again.
NASCAR NUMBERS: The sanctioning body put six cars on their chassis dynamometer following last Sunday's Harrah's 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway, and the results were hardly surprising: Dale Jarrett's car has the most power.
The chassis dynamometer measures horsepower as it relates to the rear wheels, not the engine. It's considered a more practical way to measure the amount of power generated by an engine.
Jarrett's engine, built by Robert Yates Racing, had less than a 10-horsepower advantage over engines used by Steve Park and Jeff Gordon - the second- and fifth-place finishers at Texas - and his advantage over fourth-place Kurt Busch was a staggering 38 horsepower.
Mark Martin's car tested with a 52 horsepower disadvantage.
Today's Virginia 500 at the Martinsville Speedway will mark Ken Schrader's 500th career start on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series ... Matt Kenseth's NASCAR Busch Series crew chief, Russ Strupp, was fined $5,000 and suspended for two races after the shoulder harness inside Kenseth's car failed inspection. He's the third crew chief fined and suspended for unapproved seat belts follow Dale Earnhardt's death at the Feb. 8 Daytona 500. NASCAR said Earnhardt's lap belt failed and may have contributed to his fatal injuries ... Officials at Meadowlands Park are willing to move their 72-day race season to Monmouth Park for a year so a $400 million speedway can be constructed for a Winston Cup Series race.
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