Indy pressure? Sam Hornish Jr. might be feeling it, or maybe he's just got a headache.
Terry Labonte was solid just about all of last season.
The Texas native finished outside the top 20 just three times in the second half of the season and scored his first overall top-10 finish since 1998.
At a glance, it would appear that Labonte's 2003 magic dissipated over the offseason, as Labonte has just one top-10 and currently sits 21st in points. After all, perhaps the most memorable scene involving Labonte's No. 5 Chevrolet this year was the instance when Tony Stewart made a left turn into Labonte after the Talladega race.
But Labonte's '04 results thus far actually somewhat mirror his start from last year. After the first 10 races of the 2003 season, Labonte was tied for 18th place, 435 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. This year, he is in 21st, 442 back of first-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Labonte needs to match his second-half surge of a year ago. After all, while a top-10 last year meant a trip to New York for NASCAR's banquet, sitting in the top-10 after 26 races this year buys a ticket into the Cup series' inaugural championship chase. And with just 16 races (not 26) left before the chase cutdown, the time for Labonte to make a move is now.
Alas, he just might be doing that. Labonte is coming off his best finish of the season, a seventh-place result at Fontana.
"That was huge for our team at this point of the season," said Labonte, who gained three spots in the standings with the performance. "We've struggled and have been looking for a breakthrough. We had to travel all the way to California to find it, but I think we've got what we were looking for."
It also marked the first time Labonte had finished in the top 10 at California Speedway since his ninth-place finish in 1999.
"This is the best we've run at this track since the first couple years we came out there and I think that's a sign that we're heading in the right direction."
Labonte hopes to continue building momentum this weekend at Richmond, where he won the pole last year but finished 21st after experiencing shock problems. In his Cup career, Labonte has three wins -- the last coming in 1998 -- along with 13 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes in 51 career starts at Richmond.
"We're heading in the right direction and we've got tracks coming up where I've had success in the past," said Labonte, who also has three career poles at Richmond. "This is a great chance to build some momentum and get back in the points race."
Any chance drivers like Christian Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve will come back to Champ Car? Why have teams passed on Memo Gidley?
Brad Van Swol
Interesting propositions, Brad. We agree that Christian would be wise to return to his open-wheel roots, and Champ Cars could be the best fit for him. He never acclimated to stock cars but to be fair, he never had enough seat time to learn how to excel in a completely different kind of racing. At one time he looked ready to be a future star in the CART series, but he also had some big accidents that set him back. As for Villeneuve, don't expect to see him racing in an American series ever again. If he returns to racing, it will be Formula One, and if you believe the British press, it could be as soon as next year. We like your thinking on Memo Gidley, who's been giving SCCA Touring Cars a try. Gidley's always shown talent but our best guess is that sponsors haven't lined up for him and to run in Champ Cars these days, you'd better bring some money with you.
Got your own questions about what's happening in the pits? Ask away, and we'll answer a question or two in the next Gas&Go.
On sprint-car racing this past weekend at Sedalia,
"It was a good form of therapy. ... It was definitely a good getaway after all the garbage we've been receiving the last couple of weeks."
On Hornet Division racing at the Indy Speedrome:
"Now, that's entertainment. After I left, my face hurt from laughing so hard. It was a blast watching these cars go out there and race"
On his mentor:
"When you have somebody who is as humble and good as Jeff Gordon to pull from and learn from, it's been one of the biggest assets I could have ever hoped for."
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