This is more like what Bobby Labonte had in mind when he made the move to Petty Enterprises two years ago.
Heading into Bristol for Sunday’s race, the 2000 NASCAR champion is off to his best start since 2004, when he was still driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
That season, he was 10th after the first four races and on his way to finishing 12th in the standings.
After finishes of 24th, in his final season with Gibbs, and 21st and 18th the last two years with the rebuilding Petty team, Labonte’s No. 43 Dodge is off to a solid, if unspectacular start with finishes of 11th, 25th, 17th and 12th in 2008.
It’s just one step up – although a big one – in the process of becoming a championship contender.
“The season is four races old and we’re sitting 14th in the Sprint Cup points,” Labonte said. “Obviously, we’re looking to be better than that. We’re not satisfied with 14th.
“But, at the same time, we’ve (gone) through a lot of change in the offseason. New faces, new facilities, new car. So, 14th is not a bad spot. To put it in perspective, we’re only 16 points out of the top 10.”
Before the season began, Petty vice president of operations Robbie Loomis predicted a win for Labonte in the first eight races of this season. That gives Labonte four more races to get to the Winner’s Circle for the first time since 2003.
Labonte doesn’t want to dispute his boss.
“We’re not going to go out and dominate races like the 18 (Kyle Busch) and the 99 (Carl Edwards) have,” he said. “Our MO is to stay on the lead lap and put ourselves in position at the end so that when we have a capable car we can go up and challenge for the win.”
So, how about a win this weekend?
“Anything can happen at Bristol,” said Labonte, whose best finishes of 2007 were eighths in the spring race at Phoenix and last fall on the Tennessee oval. “It has to be the most exciting racetrack in the world.
“You’re racing on top of each other. But, most importantly, you can get caught up in a wreck that you have nothing to do with. At least Bristol is not aero-sensitive. You can let the rough side drag. That’s really why I enjoy racing there. It’s old school racing.”