Bobby Labonte has seen all of the highs and lows of the Sprint Cup Series in his 20 years at the top level. He has won the Sprint Cup championship, back in 2000. At the other end of the spectrum, he has been forced to start and park a few races over the last couple of years as well.
Labonte is a 21-time winner in Sprint Cup competition, and Tuesday afternoon he was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to talk with various members of the media.
During the session, Labonte spoke about the first two weeks of the season, the prospects of possibly finding victory lane this season, and excitement about the rest of the 2011 season.
While the majority of the last few years have been a struggle for Labonte, this year's season opening Daytona 500 was a great way to begin the turnaround. Labonte finished fourth, which was his best finish since Martinsville in October of 2006.
When asked about what the good finish meant to both him and the team, Labonte said "I think it's carrying a lot of momentum for us right now just for the fact we got a top five out of the Daytona 500."
He added, "Daytona was definitely a shot in the arm for all of us. It's always easier when you get off to a good start. If you dig yourself in a hole, it's harder to get out of there, so feel good about that."
Labonte followed up his top five at Daytona with a 21st place run at Phoenix. While Labonte says the car was good, the finish was not indicative of that due to being involved in the 13 car pileup early in the event. The No. 47 car didn't sustain as much damage as other cars, so they were still able to continue on.
He was asked how he puts a weekend like that out of his mind, and focus on the upcoming race. He responded, "at the end of the day, everybody did a great job fixing our race car. We were going to be competitive before that. We were passing cars before that and even after that. Things like that keep you motivated."
This weekend marks the third race of the season. The circuit stays out west, and makes their annual visit to Las Vegas. This has been a kind track to Labonte over the years. In 13 starts, he has twice won the pole, and finished in the top 10 there five times. His best finish at this track is a fourth place run in 2003.
Labonte was asked about his outlook heading into the weekend. "Well, I think it looks good. I mean, obviously I'll start off with a positive note there. We've had two good weeks of good race cars. Going to Las Vegas, I don't see any difference there. I love the racetrack" he answered.
So, as the NASCAR season really gets into full swing, and Labonte is one of the early feel good stories, the big question surrounding him, is can he win again? The last time Labonte won was the season finale of 2003 at Homestead.
He was asked about his chances of possibly scoring a win this year. "The stuff is there to make things happen. Everybody has good weeks and bad weeks and runs good and might not run as good. I think we have just as good a shot as anybody right now with what we have" was Labonte's response.
He went on to add, "Everybody's got to have the stars aligned right every weekend no matter what. You can have the fastest car and not win the race. I do believe that we can go out there and be competitive week in and week out. In my mind, I know that we can be."
Labonte finished the thought by saying, "We have to go out there and be consistent right now. We'll gain confidence, gain integrity in our team, we'll gain experience with our group and we'll get a little bit better as we go. I think if we keep doing that, that's what's going to count towards the end of the year."
So, with 34 races still left to be run this season, it remains to be seen how the season will turn out for Labonte and his JTG Daugherty team. The one thing that is for sure right now, however, is that at least for a couple of weeks, we have been able to remember what a talented race car driver Bobby Labonte is. And if nothing else, he has been one of the early season feel good stories.