By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
A dozen former winners at the lightning-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway will try to add to their victory totals Sunday, but none of them has been more successful than Bobby Labonte.
With six Atlanta victories to his credit, he narrowly edges Bill Elliott's five. Jeff Gordon has four wins on this track, but to put Labonte's number in perspective, except for Gordon he has captured more than twice as many checkered flags as any other active driver. Only Dale Earnhardt Sr. (nine) and Carl Yarborough (seven) won more at Atlanta.
How likely is a Labonte win on Sunday? It'll be tough, considering he qualified terribly: He'll start the race from the 40th position.
But in a similar vein, no one gave him and the No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing team much of a chance coming into this season. After all, HoF struggled throughout 2008 with nearly a half-dozen different drivers behind the wheel. That's why so many jaws have dropped this season as Labonte sits 10th in the standings after the first three races.
But Labonte isn't surprised. The initial feeling he got, even before he climbed into an HoF race car for the first time, was enough to convince him to leave struggling Petty Enterprises for what he thought would be a surprisingly better team in 2009.
"I hadn't even sat in the race car yet to fit a seat, (yet) I was still confident knowing the faces and everything there and all the resources that are available," Labonte said. "There (was) no doubt in my mind (about whether the team could be good)."
A strategic alliance between HoF and Yates Racing and the reunification of Labonte and former crew chief Todd Parrott sealed the deal that this would be a completely different team.
"I think we're very fortunate that Todd and I worked together," Labonte said. "We've got great equipment and great personnel, so that helps out when we're trying to figure each other out. We already know a little bit, so that's been a little bit of a head start for us."
The team is coming off an impressive fifth-place finish in the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas despite suffering through a number of ups and downs. Labonte kept fighting back and wound up with what he hopes is the first of many top-fives this season.
"I'd make up a few positions and then get kind of stale," Labonte said. "But all in all, Todd did a great job on pit calls and we just stayed out and did all the right things."
Labonte finished 22nd in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 20th the following week in the Auto Club 500. But his strong showing last week gives him momentum and confidence just in time to race on one of his favorite tracks.
"I'm just ecstatic where we are today, there's no doubt," Labonte said. "But I know the possibility was there and I know that we had a chance at it and I know we can be successful with this race team at this point in time. I feel great about that. We're a step further ahead of what I know a lot of people here probably thought or we kind of thought, but we also knew in the back of our minds that we could be successful."
Based on that and a little bit of luck, Labonte expects to maintain his status in the top 10 for the foreseeable future.
"I always look forward to coming back to Atlanta," he said. "I've had some great runs here and know that this is has been one of my favorite tracks to come to. Usually when you unload and come to one of those venues that you enjoy a lot, that usually boosts your confidence for the weekend and morale."
Six wins is certainly a morale booster, as is the fact that Labonte and Parrott fielded some strong cars at Atlanta while racing for Petty Enterprises.
"In 2006 when Todd and I came here, we qualified (fourth) and were leading the race before we had an engine problem," Labonte said. "So as far as Todd and I are concerned, we feel like we'll be good here."
Given his switch to a new team that was rebuilding from the ground up, if anyone needed offseason testing time, it was Labonte. But because NASCAR has banned testing for 2009, the No. 96 team had to do what it could.
"I feel like we could be better if we would have been able to go to some tests, but that's just what was in front of us and we could do nothing about it," Labonte said. "I think we've got a couple tests (at non-NASCAR sanctioned tracks) coming up in the next couple months so we can figure out a few things and get ready for some short-track stuff."
Notably, Martinsville is two races down the line. Before last week, Labonte's most recent top-five came on that bullring in October 2006.
"That track is still pretty cool about racing really hard side by side," Labonte said. "A lot of things can happen. It's a long race and you really have to take care of your stuff."