Labonte credits new crew chief for back-to-back top-10s

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Forgive Bobby Labonte for wondering what might have been had Doug Randolph been his crew chief for the entire season.

Since replacing Paul Andrews two races ago, Randolph has helped the 2000 Nextel Cup champion claim consecutive top 10 finishes -- ninth at Michigan and eighth at Bristol -- for the first time since the 31st and 32nd races of last season.

There is growth to be had. We've just got to grab it.

Bobby Labonte

The last time the No. 43 -- or any Petty Enterprises car -- had consecutive top-10s before that was the 2001 season when John Andretti finished sixth and second early in the year at Darlington and Bristol.

From 2000 through 2005, the Petty organization had only 10 top-10s combined, and never more than two in a year. Labonte has had 11 since moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to start the 2006 season.

Despite the recent success, Labonte is cautiously optimistic that this is a springboard into a run at the 2008 championship Chase.

"That's what we said last year, too, and it didn't work out," Labonte said after the strong run at Bristol left him 17th in points. "So hopefully we are. I think we have a lot of great ideas. We have some good things that could happen to us if we do the right things over the wintertime and in the last part of the year."

Putting Randolph, 41, in charge of the pit box was a good start.

"I'm going to give Doug a whole lot of credit," Labonte said. "He is just really good on the radio, and made some good calls. We fought some of the things we've fought all year, but we worked on them a little bit differently. It really was a good night."

Labonte has been rumored as a candidate to drive a fourth car at Richard Childress Racing next season even though he has another year left on his contract and is discussing a long-term extension.

He appears content to stay with the Pettys as long as the organization continues to move forward.

"There is growth to be had. We've just got to grab it," Labonte said. "I believe that is the sustaining method of staying there. I mean, we have to do that to have the chance to be in the top 10 every week -- and not just twice now and twice later.

"We've got to build our race team -- and a race team is built around people. You've got to get key people, keep key people, and then it's built around confidence and camaraderie. Everything that we did [at Bristol], we have to keep doing."

Communication has been key between Labonte and Randolph, who was one of the casualties of the Ginn Racing merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"I try to keep him from getting too excited and too out of the box, and keep him focused on what we're really trying to do at the end of the day," said Randolph, who had been working with Regan Smith in the Busch Series. "That's what we've done the last couple of weeks.

"There are a gazillion decisions that are made during the weekend, and we've really worked on our communication to try to make the best with the information we have, and to make the right decisions."

Labonte said the fresh ideas Randolph brings to Petty Enterprises has been a boost to his team, and hopefully the organization.

"Those are going to enhance the race team," he said. "That is going to be key for our growth. If we do that right, hopefully we'll be stronger when we unload at Daytona next year."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.