- Auto Racing - President, drivers prepare for 2001

Tuesday, January 23
President, drivers prepare for 2001

Bobby Labonte is enjoying the perks of being the Winston Cup champion and spending some of the $3.4 million he earned for winning NASCAR's biggest prize.

Since the season ended in November, the 36-year-old Texan has made the rounds of the talk shows and gone fishing on the Amazon. Now that he's had a taste of it, Labonte doesn't want to give it up.

Bobby Labonte
Labonte, left, and Stewart are both considered title contenders.
"Since winning the title, I did everything that was the coolest," Labonte said. "Once you've done it, you want to do it again.

"It's the same with the championship -- second is really not that much fun after you've tried first," he said. "So we're pretty well pumped into trying to do it again."

Repeating certainly won't be easy.

It's not like winning the 2000 title was easy, but Labonte sure made it look that way with a consistent season built on 19 top-five finishes in 34 races.

But the competition will be fierce this year, especially from a handful of drivers seeking the title for the first time.

Labonte is among many in the sport who believe the top contender could be Jeff Burton, third last season in the standings. Burton, who matched Labonte with four victories, is flattered by that.

"If anybody in Winston Cup racing, especially our competitors, feels that we are a team that is capable of winning a championship, we think that's pretty neat," Burton said. "I think we have worked hard to get to that point."

But Labonte doesn't limit the field to Burton. He mentions several others he believes will be difficult to beat. Among them is Tony Stewart, the champion's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, who led the series with six victories.

"I'm not playing favorites when I say Tony Stewart," Labonte said.

There also could be a strong push from the graybeards on the series. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt spent much of 2000 hot on the rear bumper of Labonte's Pontiac and wound up second in the standings.

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 series champion, won four races and led more than 1,700 laps last season. Wallace figures there's no way he can be counted out.

"I feel like I'm just getting better in the car," he said.

"The team knows it and they wanted T-shirts made up with slogans on them, but I told them, `Calm down, we don't want to get too cocky before we get to Daytona and sink the whole thing."'

The thing that I like about Mike Helton is that he will listen to you. At the end of the day, you've got to live with what he says, but he's the best thing to happen to NASCAR.
Jimmy Spencer

When the season opens with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, NASCAR will try to overcome the lingering effect from the deaths last year of Busch Series driver Adam Petty, Winston Cup competitor Kenny Irwin and Craftsman Truck Series driver Tony Roper. But it won't be easy.

"We lost some family members," said president Mike Helton. "That's not something you ever really put behind you."

On tap is the most extensive schedule of the modern era of NASCAR. There are 36 races, including inaugural events in Joliet, Ill., and Kansas City, Kan. That will tax the physical resources of the teams.

"The biggest thing is making sure that we don't wear our people totally out," said Dale Jarrett, the defending champion of the Daytona 500. "In those three weeks that we have off, we scheduled no testing whatsoever, and we're going to make sure the guys take enough time to enjoy what they're doing.

"They're being paid well now for what they do, but it's not a lot of fun if they just send that paycheck home and they don't get time to enjoy it."

The Daytona 500, which 1999 series champion Jarrett will try to win for the fourth time, will mark the start of NASCAR's six-year, $2.8 billion television package with Fox and NBC.

The blockbuster deal means that two networks with little or no history in stock car racing will be carrying the entire Winston Cup schedule.

But the networks will be aided by familiar faces. Among the commentators will be retired driver Darrell Waltrip and former crew chief Larry McReynolds.

Interest in the sport also will be heightened by Dodge's return to Winston Cup after a hiatus of nearly two decades.

The manufacturer returns with some healthy teams in the fold. Former crew Ray Evernham, who led Jeff Gordon to three series titles, owns a team that will field Intrepids for Bill Elliott and rookie Casey Atwood.

And Petty Enterprises will have three cars, switching from Pontiacs to Dodges for holdovers Kyle Petty, John Andretti and newcomer Buckshot Jones.

No one knows how the Dodge will fare in its comeback.

"I've been trying to tell everybody don't expect 200 wins out of the next 300 races," Andretti said. "I don't know that any Dodges are going to be running for the championship this year."

The other major change is in leadership.

For the first time since NASCAR was formed by Bill France Sr. in 1947, a season will begin without a member of his family as CEO.

Helton took over late last year when Bill France Jr., who is fighting cancer, stepped aside. The transition has been smooth, and most drivers look upon Helton the way they viewed the France regime.

"The thing that I like about Mike Helton is that he will listen to you," Jimmy Spencer said. "At the end of the day, you've got to live with what he says, but he's the best thing to happen to NASCAR."