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Published: Friday, 7/16/2004

'Fatback' McSwain surprised after being fired as Labonte's crew chief

The sometimes controversial and always colorful Michael "Fatback" McSwain is no longer the crew chief for Bobby Labonte at Joe Gibbs Racing. Wednesday, McSwain was released from his duties with the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet in the Nextel Cup Series.

McSwain had joined the team in December of 2002 and served as Labonte's crew chief for the 2003 season and the first 18 races of this season. During that 54-race stint, McSwain was a part of two victories, both in 2003. Labonte, currently sixth in the points race, has five top-fives and nine top 10s in 18 starts this year.

While the Gibbs people said all of the right things about the split, McSwain was caught off-guard by it. "It was as big a shock to me as it was the rest of the world," said McSwain, 37. "If we were 25th in points I probably wouldn't be so disappointed. But being in the position we're in, it's disappointing."

"Over the past two years, Michael McSwain has worked extremely hard for Joe Gibbs Racing," J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR, said. "This was a difficult decision, but it was time to go in a different direction. We appreciate all that he has done for the team and wish him the best of luck in the future."

Labonte, who is preparing for the next race at New Hampshire International Speedway on July 25, lauded his former pit boss.

"Michael did a great job when he came in and took over after the 2002 season," Labonte said. "We won a couple of races in 2003 and won some poles. He works hard, and I wish him success down the road."

Brandon Thomas, a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing engineering department, was selected yesterday as the interim crew chief.

"Brandon is a veteran employee of Joe Gibbs Racing and has worked closely with Bobby and the Interstate Batteries crew," J.D. Gibbs said. "We're confident in his ability to lead us through this time of transition."

The 30-year-old Thomas, from Kingsport, Tenn., started with the Gibbs team in December 2001 in the shock department. He left in June 2002 to serve as John Andretti's crew chief at Petty Enterprises, but returned to JGR for the 2003 season.

McSwain said he plans to take a little time to determine where his career will go after this. "It's no different than anybody else - we've had good weeks and bad weeks, but it was a big surprise, I'll give you that," McSwain said. "It really was. I can't say we didn't do good together, because we did."

DALE JR./CORVETTE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't be sitting around during the final open weekend on the Nextel Cup schedule. Earnhardt will join the Chevrolet Corvette team for this weekend's American Le Mans Series event at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

Earnhardt will team with Boris Said in the GTS class event of the Infineon Grand Prix, a two-hour and 45-minute timed race Sunday on the 2.53-mile layout. Earnhardt is the first full-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver to race in the American Le Mans Series since the formation of the series in 1999.

"I'm happy that Chevy has given me the chance to cross over and take part in its sports car program," Earnhardt said.

THE OTHER EARNHARDT: Kerry Earnhardt will drive the remainder of the 2004 NASCAR West Series season for Bill McAnally Racing, the team announced over the weekend.

Earnhardt, 34, will join series veteran Austin Cameron in a two-car effort beginning with tomorrow's race at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash.

Earnhardt, the eldest son of the late Dale Earnhardt, is driving in select Nextel Cup races this season for Richard Childress Racing.

SUPERBIKES AT MID-OHIO: The diehards claim there is no hotter or more competitive and thrilling brand of American motorsports than superbike racing, and the bikes take center stage at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington next weekend.

The AMA U.S. Superbike Championship is part of the Honda Super Cycle Weekend, July 23-25, at the track in Richland County. Mid-Ohio is a permanent road course with both a 2.4-mile, 15-turn configuration and a 2.25-mile, 13-turn layout.

The extreme machines of the top class in pro motorcylce racing run in excess of 160 mph on Mid-Ohio's back straightaway.

Honda factory riders Ben Bostrom and Miguel Duhamel, as well as as Eric Bostrom and Mat Mladin are some of the leading drivers in the event.

Matt Markey and The Blade's wire services contributed to this report.



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