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Can Bobby Labonte and Todd Parrott, two NASCAR champions now teammates, turn 'opportunity' into success?


Bobby Labonte faces one of the great challenges of his championship career -- making a comeback (Photo:Nigel Kinrade/Autostock)


By Mike Mulhern

   Just what's going on over at Doug Yates' shop, by the Jack Roush NASCAR compound?
   Well, like just about everywhere in the sport these days, there's a bit of frantic chaos.
    But Bobby Labonte, the newest man on the Yates-Roush staff, is breathing a big sigh of relief. A month or so ago, he was a man without a team. And at 44, in a sport where newcomer Joey Logano, just 18, is about to become the youngest man ever to run in the Daytona, and a sport where some veterans with five years under their belts are still just 26 or younger, Labonte was sweating.
   Yes, that championship was nice, proved his worth. And he doesn't tear up equipment.
   But with three lackluster seasons at Petty Enterprises just behind him, after a mediocre year or so at Joe Gibbs, well, Labonte can feel the hot breath on his neck.
   Now he's got Yates' horsepower, which should be a major plus, and he's got the Roush-Yates organization behind him, and he's got solid equipment, and even a sponsor – hard to come by these days, just ask former boss Richard Petty.
   Can Labonte still get the job done?
   Well, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in the same camp now, Labonte won't have to look far to see how well he measures up.
   "Things are still new for me, but I'm so excited," the extremely low-keyed Labonte says, in his droll, laconic style. 
   "It's a great opportunity…and it's just weird it happened in January. 
    "If it were a perfect world, it would have happened in September, October or November.
   "But this is going to be great. A lot of things have transpired…and we're going racing.
   "The guys at the shop have the race cars built…and we've got cars going everywhere (for testing). So it's a flurry of activity." 
    For Labonte it's sort of like opening the door and walking into a blizzard.
    The bottom line for him is simple: "I look at this as a 'reset.'
   "I figure the next race I win will feel like the first one, because when you have success you want more success -- if you really want to do it."
   For Labonte that next win….well, when was his last win?
   November 2003, at Homestead, with Joe Gibbs.
   That's a long dry spell.
   How badly does a man's confidence weaken?
   "It's about winning, and being the best you can be….and this is a great opportunity – it's given me that reset button I can push and go forward," he says.
   Just a little.  
   "My agent -- Terry Labonte -- has always advised me things to do and not; I took everything into perspective," Labonte says.
   "But I think I've done a lot of the right things…and I guess I've made him proud, because I did take a lot of his advice and made it to…well, we're okay. 
   "Obviously the opportunity is here….and the desire to do what you want to do -- to get up every day with the desire to race to win -- is still there."
   When rival team owner Richard Childress last summer wrangled away the General Mills' sponsorship that had fueled the Pettys and Labonte for so long, it was clear things would quickly get tough for that Level Cross operation, unless Petty could get his act together quickly. The Boston Ventures' infusion of cash didn't help things at all, apparently, and Petty himself has all but called it quits, except as front man and cheerleader for the new George Gillett operation, running under the logo Richard Petty Motorsports.
   Labonte finally bailed in December. And landing a job, even with his credentials, in this economic climate is tough.
   "I beat up the phones some, and then I laid off…and my wife said 'You need to beat them up some more,'" Labonte said of that cold December.
   "But I hate to bother people too much; I didn't want to wear people out. I've seen that happen before."
   However in this sport, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Ask Ward Burton. Ask Jeremy Mayfield. As a lot of guys who once were stars but almost vanished overnight.
   "So I said 'Well, I'll go back to the phones and start wearing people out again,'" Labonte says with a laugh.
   "That was the rollercoaster part of the 'movie.' 
   "Then there were some 'horror' times in it.
   "But then we could laugh about it sometimes too. 
    "I got a lot more done, and realized a lot more -- than what I might have worried about before, or took for granted before.
    "I had a conversation with Doug late last year -- and the complicated part about life is I couldn't do anything really until after my release was signed (in mid-December).  That wouldn't have been right.
    "But he was one of the first guys I called: 'Hey, I finally got out of this deal.'
    "If we could have made the deal happen then…but a lot of things had to take place before it could happen."
    Another part of the equation here is Todd Parrott. Son of the legendary Buddy Parrott, Todd too has hit hard times in this sport, so he's on the rebound too."
   But Parrott is known as a tough taskmaster. How well he works with the easy-going Labonte will be interesting to watch.
   Certainly both men have been wearing their emotions on their sleeves.
   "There's no doubt in my mind that with Todd and the resources there, and the group that's been put together…..well, I'm not saying it's 'a great opportunity' just because it's a ride," Labonte points out. "It's a great opportunity because it's more than just a ride. 
    "It's hard to explain…but I don't think I even know the potential yet.
   "Todd is the main focus for me -- being the crew chief. And making sure the chemistry is right, and having great teammates, and great resources…there's a lot more I haven't even seen or touched yet.
   "And obviously I haven't even been to the track:  It's a weird time because we haven't tested together yet."
   That comes this week when Daytona opens for SpeedWeeks.
    "….Until you get the first practice….and that will be unique and challenging itself," Labonte says. 
   "I've talked to Biffle, I've talked to Paul (Menard, another of his new teammates). I can ask those questions you wanted to ask before but you never did…because my personality wouldn't let me go and dig into things that would probably be private.
   "So this is a great opportunity for me. I don't think I could ask for anything better. 
   "The key thing we've got to put our focus on is we've been given a great opportunity and we've got to make the best of this."



Todd Parrott (L, with teammate Travis Kvapil): Can Parrott, who crewwed Dale Jarrett to the 1999 NASCAR championship, help 2000 NASCAR champ Bobby Labonte bounce back to winning form? (Photo: Brian Czobat for Autostock)


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