Originally created 08/07/03

Labonte Brothers bouncing back after sub-par years



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bobby and Terry Labonte passed the time during a recent NASCAR presentation with knowing glances and a few whispers between them.

Whatever secrets the two were sharing, the identical smirks from each brother confirmed what's been suspected all season: The Labontes are having fun at the race track once again.

"We never had a pity party together or anything like that," Terry said. "But I know I certainly didn't enjoy coming to every race track every weekend, and I'm sure Bobby wasn't exactly loving it, either."

Neither enjoyed their profession much last season, since each was stuck in a slump of huge proportions.

Terry, a two-time Winston Cup champion, last won a race in 1999. And since winning his second title in 1996, he had slipped lower and lower in the season-ending point standings - all the way to an embarrassing 24th last year.

Bobby's descent wasn't as steep, but his results had certainly slipped since winning the 2000 Winston Cup title. Normally in the thick of most title chases, he dropped to 16th in the series standings last year - the same season teammate Tony Stewart was crowned champion.

"You don't have any fun when you know there's a problem, but you can't figure out how to solve it no matter what you try," Bobby said. "It's hard to keep showing up for work feeling confident in your abilities, in what the team can or can't do, when the results are continuously knocking you down."

Bobby was expected to find a way to turn it around. At 39 years old, he still had plenty of gas in his tank and was capable of winning races.

But at 46 years old, Terry was simply expected to ride out the final years of his career. It had been so long since he had been competitive, skeptics wondered if he still had the desire in him.

"Everybody has been through it," Terry said. "It's just competition. It's hard for a team to stay on top.

"Sometimes, when you're down on the bottom, you don't know how you got there and you don't know how you're going to get out. You just keep working at it."

Both brothers did keep working on the slow climb back to the top, and both find themselves almost there.

Bobby is currently sixth in the points standings with one victory, and a series high 10 top-5 finishes.

Terry is 14th in points with three top 5s and six top 10s - a season after he scored just one top 5 the entire year.

"I know our parents get a smile seeing both their boys running well again," Bobby said. "And I know our wives are enjoying it a lot more, too.

"And for me, just being able to look in my mirror and see that big Tiger (the logo on Terry's Kellogg's-sponsored car) coming up on my bumper again and passing me is pretty neat."

Terry's turnaround is the bigger fete, considering how poorly his Hendrick Motorsports team had been running. He credits crew chief Jim Long, now in his second season, for breaking out of the old way of doing things the No. 5 Chevrolet was relying on.

"It's easy now to look back and see how messed up we were," Terry said. "God knows we didn't realize we were. Jim came on board and started showing us some things that weren't being done right."

The first thing Long asked when he came aboard was to see the results of wind tunnel testing. Former crew chief Gary DeHart wasn't big on taking cars to the wind tunnel, so the team had nothing to show.

"Because we hadn't gone to the wind tunnel, we didn't realize until Jim came along we were as far off body-wise as we were," Terry said. "We didn't take them to the wind tunnel, so we weren't taking much to the race track."

Once Long brought the team back up to speed, it didn't take Terry long to prove he's just as good a driver as he was when he won his Winston Cup titles.

Now the speculation over how Hendrick would part ways with Terry when his contract expires at the end of his year has shifted to how many years the car owner plans to resign him for.

With a return to Victory Lane the one thing Terry is still chasing, he's certain he's not ready to retire but gives few hints as to how many years he has left.

"You can count them on one hand," he says with a smile.

And don't ask Bobby, because he doesn't have any idea, either. But he does know he wants the chance to run side-by-side with his brother for a win.

"I think it's just a matter of time before Terry is running for wins again," Bobby said. "And I want to be the one up there battling him for them."