BROOKLYN, Mich. - It's easy to say Terry Labonte has turned the corner in his recent NASCAR Winston Cup career, along with his crew chief, Jim Long of Toledo.
Of course, everyone turns the corner in NASCAR. The drivers in Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway who complete all 200 laps will have turned a total of 800 corners.
But the big bend the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Team is successfully negotiating isn't all about turning left. It's about being right when it comes to the race cars, team, driver and results. Right, as in not happy anymore with leftovers.
Labonte comes to MIS today with the attitude that he can win Sunday. It's the same sentiment he had last year when he came to Michigan, but in reality a victory would have been a top-10 finish.
“We were terrible,” Terry admits now. “We shot down in the points and we went through a stretch where the car seemed tired, or we blew a tire or wrecked. It seemed like we couldn't do anything right.
“We knew we had some tough luck, missed some setups and didn't have the best equipment we had hoped to have, but there were always some bright spots in there that kept us going. We knew we had the potential and we were going to keep working, keep trying and get better.”
The term “better” is too mundane in this instance. The Kellogg's/got milk? Racing Team is milking all it can out of its second season under Long, who came on board at the conclusion of the 2001 season.
Labonte is 14th in the Winston Cup point standings with 14 races remaining. He finished 24th last season, his worst ever, with only four top-10 finishes and one in the top five. He already has six top-10s this year, including a pair of top-fives. Brother Bobby, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, is seventh in the points.
Terry, two-time Winston Cup champion (1996, 1984) has averaged 12th place over the last 10 races. He averaged 29.07 place over his last 14 races last season, the team hitting assorted wall-to-wall obstacles.
Call last season transitional, although Labonte and Long might argue that it was more like transfigured in regard to what was anticipated.
Everyone sat down at the end of the season and pointed fingers, not at each other but at each aspect of the team.
“We were getting better last year and then we stopped getting better,” Long said yesterday. “I made a few bad judgments on what car to take to a particular track and everything kind of crumbled apart.
“It was discouraging, no doubt. In my mind I expected more and thought we would be better, but the reality was we weren't. If you're going to spend time in this business and be successful you've got to dig out of holes, and that's what we're trying to do.”
Long's first season with the team last year was about learning what Terry wanted as a driver, and gaining the trust of Hendrick Motorsports, which also includes drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Joe Nemechek. Most importantly for Long was getting to know the people working under him, what they represented and what they sought from Long.
“I felt Jim didn't have any baggage, meaning he didn't want to bring all of his buddies when we hired him,” Terry said. “We felt we had real good people, we just needed to get a better handle on things. Jim reminds me a lot of Dale Inman, my crew chief when I won the title in 1984. He knows a lot about everything but he's not an expert on any one thing. But he's smart enough to recognize talent and get the best out of those around him.
“We're getting a lot better cars than we had a year ago out of our shop, and we're getting the cars to where they work a lot better. Last year Jim didn't know most of people and who the real players were and weren't. It takes a while to get that all sorted out. He just inherited all of the equipment and tried to make it better.”
Last year Labonte had maybe three cars he felt comfortable with. This year the fleet has tripled.
Like every good coach, Long credits his crews in the shop and at the track for the team's turnaround, with about 95 per cent of his personnel retained from last year.
“The competition is so tough, it's not just if you can get in the ballpark, but you've got to get on base to be competitive,” he said. “You've got to go around the bases and be headed for home plate.
“We can't let a bump in the road slow us down. Last year it would slow us for a few races.”
In the Brickyard 400 two weeks ago at Indianapolis, Terry had to take a provisional starting position after failing to qualify. He started 38th, suffered a flat tire, but still managed to work his way up to ninth before being bumped in the rear and spun out by Kurt Busch with 15 laps remaining.
Another bump in the road occurred at MIS last June when Terry qualified fifth fastest, but because of an engine change had to start 41st in the 43-car field. Despite a naughty carburetor that inhaled an undesirable particle, he finished 10th, his third consecutive top-10 finish.
This is a team that has taken a turn for the better, left to be more specific, and rightfully so.