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After Bobby's top-10 at Loudon, expectations soaring for Daytona

This whole past weekend at New Hampshire went really well for us. We unloaded in race trim to get an idea of where we were, and we unloaded really well. We made two short race runs and switched to qualifying trim right away. We usually show up and run the first practice in race trim, then work on things and switch to qualifying trim. But we felt good about things with our race trim, so we focused on qualifying and qualified second. I think it was because we had so much more qualifying practice time.

Bobby Labonte

Labonte

Sometimes you're just "there." We're learning more and more every week. The 45 car tested at Milwaukee, and we used stuff that crew learned, so we were able to unload and get in a good, solid practice. We also had a decent run at Richmond, and we brought some stuff back from that and used some of that, too.

I did the fuel-mileage thing at New Hampshire, so I was happy to see the rain. We keep a close eye on the radar, and I've got to say, 10 laps before the shower started, I thought it should have been raining already. We were cutting it close, and that made it really interesting. You know, gambling on fuel is what a lot of these races are coming down to, and I like it. It's a lot of fun, it's challenging and everyone in the pit box feels involved. I can't put my finger on why this has become the case … maybe it's car related, maybe a little tire related. But it's really just that the competition is so close that everybody out there is running almost identical lap times. It's hard to do anything. It's hard to pass. I think it just happens, and people start thinking, "Who's more daring with fuel-mileage strategy?" Believe me, I'm not going to get overconfident.

I'm looking forward to Daytona. We finished 11th there in February in our first race together with new cars, new everything, and we're going back with most of the same stuff we had. The Gillett Evernham engines definitely have more horsepower than they had in January. The team is finding stuff here and there. At Talladega, our engines were better than our Daytona engines, so I think they're going to be better again.

It's hard to compare the February race at Daytona to the July race. Obviously, with the Daytona 500, you put so much into that race because you have so much time to prepare for it. The second Daytona race sneaks up on you. We just got done racing a short track and, well, it's time to get ready for a speedway race. You're so busy until the week of the race, you probably don't put as much thought into the second race as you do the first. But the bottom line is, it's equally important in terms of points. I hope a lot of the data and information we got in February will translate to now. I'm going back with the same setups. I'm sure the handling is going to be a little different, and I'm sure we'll have to tweak our chassis, but we're going back with pretty much the same stuff.

I can't believe this is the halfway point of the season. It doesn't feel like it. I've got a dry-erase board in our office that I put our finishes on, and that list is getting long. I'd say right now we're communicating the best we have yet. It seems like our relationship has really grown, and things are just going to keep getting better.

Jeff Meendering is the first-year crew chief for the famed Petty Enterprises No. 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge Charger driven by Bobby Labonte. Meendering will take ESPN.com readers inside his life on and off the track each week with the help of writer Angelique S. Chengelis.