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Bobby Labonte, talking with teammate Greg Biffle: Ford teams have been much too quiet lately. Time to start kicking some Chevy butt, isn't it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

    LOUDON, N.H.
    Can anybody stop the Hendrick juggernaut?
    Kasey Kahne pulled the surprise at Sonoma…but that victory over Hendrick-powered Tony Stewart only triggered a storm of questions about the future of the Richard Petty-George Gillett Dodge team.
    And David Reutimann's rainy gamble at Charlotte proved a winner for Michael Waltrip's team.
    Otherwise this spring was just about all Rick Hendrick.
    Will this summer bring any change?
    Well, Stewart and Jeff Gordon are on the front for the 2 p.m. start of Sunday's Loudon 301, because they're atop the NASCAR standings. And they could easily battle it out all afternoon on this flat one-mile.
    Still, with eight different winners in the last eight Cup events here, there is a good chance something unusual might happen.
    Certainly somebody needs to get up on the wheel and shake up the Hendrick gang.
    The best bets, of course, are Jack Roush's guys and Joe Gibbs' guys. But both camps have been in a slump lately.
    Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate, may be the guy to keep an eye on. His team has been sharp all season, and Newman himself has been on the verge of winning several times. Plus, there's just a sense that Newman is ready.
    Over in the Roush camp, the usual suspects are Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth….and it's time for Jamie McMurray and David Ragan to start making something happen.
    So what's going on in the Doug Yates' side of the Ford camp?
    Well, insiders say Ford's new engine – which has yet to debut this season – may still be in development. Rivals hint they're hearing things aren't going so well with the new Ford motor. And the engine program is Yates' big baby, perhaps even more so than his two-car operation, which has been just so-so this year.
    But then maybe it's just Roush and Yates doing some rope-a-dope: why show your hand now, why not wait till it really counts, in the September-October-November championship chase?
   Remember last season Kyle Busch ripped through the first eight months of play, only to fall apart in the chase?
   Maybe Roush is just taking a page from the Chad Knaus-Jimmie Johnson playbook.
   So could be time to start watching Bobby Labonte, Yates' Mr. Smooth. Yes, it's been quite a while since his last tour win, back in 2003 at Homestead. His best run this year (his first with Yates and Roush) was a fifth at Las Vegas in March. And he'll have to start 28th.
   But Labonte was one of the quickest here in Saturday practice in Ben Leslie's car.
   And if Labonte is going to make something of this season, now's the time to start.
   "I thought our car was pretty good," Labonte said. "Ben was saying Jimmie Johnson's lap times weren't too bad and we were pretty close, pretty comparable. So I'm pretty happy with it.
    "I wasn't very happy with it Friday. But it's a new day, and we changed a few things, and it's definitely better.
    "We were pretty happy with the 20-lap run we made; and we never put tires on it. We're trying to get a balance on it with 30 and 40 laps on our tires. That's what we're keying – if you're still comfortable after 25 laps, that's good."
    Still, it's been a pretty down year so far, not only for Labonte but for Ford teams in general. The scoreboard shows Chevrolet with eight wins, Toyota with four, and Dodge and Ford with two each.
    Time for Ford to start playing catch-up.
   Are things about to change? Aside from the year's first two races, it hasn't been much of a Ford year, for whatever reason.
    "You don't want to be too hard on yourself," Labonte ponders….."because you don't want to not win and then make yourself not win by being too hard on yourself and screwing yourself up more."
   Uh, let me ponder that Labonte-ism for a moment.
   "The first two races that Matt Kenseth won, that was great," Labonte went on. "Then, after eight races or 10 races into it, you're like 'Okay, maybe we're not as good as we thought we were.'  Or the competition's gotten better."
   Certainly Labonte, Yates and Roush aren't alone in wondering about all that. So are Richard Childress' guys and Joe Gibbs' guys, who all seem to have lost focus.
   Or maybe Hendrick's guys just have better tricks. Hey, when Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman can play, out of the box, as strongly as they have been so far, Hendrick engineering – maybe even Hendrick engines – sure looks like the class of the sport.
   Maybe it's those trick bump-stop shocks from, where was it Gordon was saying, Bahrain or Dubai?
   Whatever it is, if anyone but a Hendrick man wins this 301 it will be something of an upset. Certainly no trending otherwise yet.
   Labonte: "I think there's probably room to improve on some things.
    "I do see a trend going the right way -- but it's peak-and-valley.
   "We went to the valley for a little bit, and we don't want to have to wait until after Pocono (in August) to start peaking again."

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