Bobby Labonte’s charge to the top of the standings in NASCAR Winston Cup racing is a combination of consistency and destiny.

The consistency is best illustrated by his remarkable ability to keep the Interstate Batteries Pontiac up front nearly every week. In the first 24 races of the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup season, Labonte had 17 top 10s and 13 top 5 finishes. Only defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett could come close to those totals over the same span, as the Ford driver had 20 top 10s and 13 top 5 but continued to trail Labonte in the point standings heading into the final two months of the season.

Even drivers who drove to Victory Lane more often than Labonte understood just how impressive the cool, calm driver for Joe Gibbs Racing was this season.

“Bobby’s been having incredible consistency—abnormal consistency,” said Rusty Wallace, winner of four races in the first 24 events. “It’s the consistency you are not supposed to have that much all the time. Dale Jarrett has done that, too.”

For instance, when Wallace won the Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway on August 20, he may have finished far ahead of the field, but he couldn’t finish far enough ahead of Labonte, who finished third.

“Today, I didn’t see him early in the race, he struggled, and all of a sudden, I look in the mirror and see him way back there, but he’s in Third Place,” Wallace said after that race. “He’s knocking out those top fives, and that’s what you’ve got to do to get the job done.”

If that race illustrated Labonte’s remarkable penchant for consistency, then only one race this season is the best example of Labonte’s destiny.

That came in the Southern 500 on September 3.

Just two days earlier, Labonte’s championship hopes were in doubt when his throttle stuck while attempting to qualify. He crashed hard into the second-turn wall and avoided serious injury. The car was too damaged to be repaired, and Labonte had to start a backup car in the race from 37th position.

In one of the most unusual Southern 500s in recent memory, the marathon race that included a two-hour red flag for rain saw Labonte systematically work his way through the field, thanks to some outstanding pit work by his crew.

With rain on the horizon, Labonte’s crew was able to get him out of the pits in First Place. His crew chief, Jimmy Makar, made all the right calls. When rain finally began to fall and the final yellow flag was displayed, Labonte’s Pontiac was first behind the pace car. A few minutes later, the rain became a downpour, NASCAR called the race official short of completion, and Labonte had overcome tremendous adversity to score his first-ever victory at the 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway.

Some call that destiny.

“I don’t really think of it like that,” Labonte said. “I think we dodged a bullet. If that was the last race of the year and it was the determining factor, that would be one thing. But there are still a lot of races to go, and it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

That was after Labonte had time to reflect on the season. Shortly after he won that race, however, Labonte couldn’t help but feel like there was a reason he was able to overcome the obstacles to win.

“I guess you’ve got to look at the positives on everything,” Labonte said after that race. “I was praying pretty hard right after that wreck on Friday. It could have been a lot worse. It was a scary thing. There’s no doubt about it. It was a hard enough hit for me to be hurt. But the positive part was that I’m physically fit enough, or it wasn’t enough of an angle, or speed, or it was glancing enough, that it didn’t have any bad effects.

“I’ve been here before, and I’m actually one for three. I’ve broken two shoulder blades here in two different wrecks, and I got out and was like, ‘Hey, I ain’t got no broken shoulder blades, so I’m up now.’

“But it’s going to be kind of hard to top the win. To go through all the adversity of starting 37th—I didn’t really think we had a shot at winning, that is for sure. I thought we had a shot for a good race.

“But to win the Southern 500 …”

Labonte is the prototypical driver to win a NASCAR Winston Cup championship. He has the calm, steady demeanor to not get too excited after a victory or too low after a loss. He lets the race come to him rather than force the issue. If he has a car that is capable of winning a race, Labonte will put it in a position to win. If the car is not capable of winning, he will still find a way of finishing near the front.

“You have to make a terrible day into a fair day, and Bobby has done that,” said seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. “You just keep going to each race with that mindset of, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go to the front. I’ve got to get the front. I’ve got to be serious all day of where I’m at.’ It’s not guarding points; it’s trying to better your position to the best you can.

“His team (Jimmy Makar and Bobby Labonte), I don’t think the racing pressure gets to them. There was much more verbal volume to the points races when it was me and Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace and that.”

Labonte and Makar understand the value of collecting points, but that in no way makes them “strokers.” After all, in the highly competitive world of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, it’s a challenge simply to get into the top 10.

“Bobby Labonte is pretty much there every week, but other than that, everybody else is in a hit-or-miss situation,” Jarrett said. “You just really can’t have any problems and expect to be there at the top five at the end of the day.”

So, what are the reasons for Labonte’s success?

“I think there are a couple of things,” Jarrett explained. “He won a Busch championship, and that is going to help him. Bobby is very calm; he is very cool. He doesn’t get rattled by anything. If somebody gets on his bumper and he is not happy at the time, he gets out of it. He doesn’t try to do things he is not capable of doing. That is what winning championships is all about. He doesn’t try to stick it in that gap there.

“Jimmy Makar has been through a championship. Joe Gibbs is a very steady influence that is going to help Bobby in this championship drive. He has a lot of things on his side, plus he is very, very talented and someone that I have always looked at and said they can win championships because they just don’t get rattled.

“If anybody can put some distance on the field heading down the stretch this season, it’s Bobby. The cars are very good, their chassis are very good, and they just compete well at every single track we go to. I see of a lot of what we did last year in what they do. I see the same things happening. They can get behind a little bit in races and still finish in the top five. They can do that. If Dale Earnhardt or myself or any of the guys behind him have one problem, then they can distance himself quite a bit and can put a pretty good gap on them. That’s what we did last year.”

Losing last year’s title to Jarrett did teach Labonte some valuable lessons that have paid off in 2000.

“I learned obvious things, such as the value of consistency and learning how to race for the wins that add up to points instead of making as many mistakes as before,” Labonte explained. “Last year there were a lot of things that just kind of happened that you just can’t explain why, but it’s a little different running for first, second, or third in points than running for seventh, eighth, ninth, or 10th in points. It’s just a different feeling and a different factor. It’s hard to explain, other than your focus is different. Everything goes right for you, so you focus more on the things that are going for you instead of the few things that might go bad for you.”

Labonte perfectly emulates the consistent driver in NASCAR. He is so consistent that he nearly lulls the competition to sleep.

Call it the secret to his success.

“I guess it’s just a ‘work in progress’ pattern,” Labonte said. “We’ve worked hard at it. Since I started driving for Joe, each year things have just kind of slowly, meticulously been a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better, building up to this situation. Last year we finished second in points, which was great. But we had that same model of consistency we have this year. There are no guarantees that everything you do is going to make you consistent, because there are a lot of things that could happen to you that will make you have a DNF or make you have bad finishes that you have no control over.

“You just try to be cautiously aggressive on everything with the thought process to be as consistent as possible, and at the end of the day, you learn from that. Of course, when you aren’t, you learn from that, too. Hopefully, we keep doing it so we can be considered a consistent runner week in and week out.”

Labonte also has a squeaky-clean image as a racer. He doesn’t push the issue, and that has earned him the respect of every driver in the garage area.

Just how did Labonte develop this clean, driving style behind the wheel of his race car?

“From years of screwing up and not being very smooth and very clean,” he said. “That’s true. Really, it is. It’s a deal where I’ve done a lot of things growing up racing that didn’t start off that way, for sure.

“Experience is a big part of it. And having ‘The Iceman’ as your brother and having that in your genes probably helps. I’m not a total opposite of him. I’m a little opposite, but not in a lot of ways, or if it is, it’s not necessarily on the racetrack as much as it is in my personal life. But our thought processes are similar.

“It just comes from experience and being with a good race team that teaches you things, from thinking about discipline, self-discipline, talking about mistakes we’ve made in the past that we don’t need to make again. Everywhere you go, you just try to figure out what to do the next time you go back to it. If it’s a new racetrack, my thought is that you approach it the same way: ‘Let’s go out there and feel what we’ve got, proceed on to getting a little faster, see where the competition is at. Can we be a contender? If we’re not, let’s get the best out of it and go home, then learn from that.’”

Perhaps the signature victory of Labonte’s season came when he won the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For 70 laps he kept his Pontiac on the rear bumper of Rusty Wallace’s Ford Taurus.

With 14 laps to go, Labonte found the right opportunity to get past the car that had led the most laps in the race. He methodically began to set up Wallace in the third turn, pulled alongside the Ford coming off the fourth turn, made a slight bump, and was able to drag-race with Wallace down the long frontstretch of the most fabled race course in the world.

At the end of the frontstretch, Labonte pulled in front and was able to drive to the biggest victory of his career. It may have also been enough to propel him to the NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Although Labonte doesn’t believe in such things, of the six winners in the Brickyard 400, two were able to use that victory as a springboard to the Winston Cup championship—Jeff Gordon in 1998 and Jarrett last year.

Being the driver that is in the lead of the NASCAR Winston Cup championship for most of the season puts him under the microscope. He becomes the most sought-after driver in the garage area by the media, who want to understand his inner thoughts.

Meantime, the driver in the lead simply wants to continue what he has been doing all year and concentrate on racing.

“Avoiding the questions from people week in and week out has been the most difficult aspect of being the points leader,” Labonte admitted. “Other than that, I haven’t really seen anything a whole lot different, to be honest with you. It’s just what you want to make of it. I haven’t made anything of it other than that it’s a whole lot better leading than it is running second because it’s more exciting. You’re focused more, maybe. Trying to play catch-up, you’ve got to think of a lot of things as you’re trying to proceed forward. That’s me personally. Not everybody has the same comment.

“But this is a lot more fun. I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s been any big deal. Not saying this won’t change, because it probably will, but so far I can’t say that I’ve seen anything that’s been harder, more difficult, or frustrating or challenging or anything. It’s been focus, focus, focus.”

That attitude is shared by his crew chief, Jimmy Makar, who was a key part of the Blue Max Racing team when Rusty Wallace won the ’89 NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

“We have to continue like we’re doing,” Makar said. “We’re working the game plan. The game plan is to go into every single week with the race of that week in mind. Monday morning, the focus will be on next week, and that’s what we’ve got to do is go into every race trying to win every race, trying to be the best every week. If we do that, then the points will take care of themselves by the end of the year.

“We’re really not going into races looking at dodging bullets necessarily. We’re going into the races thinking the same way that we have all along, to try to go in there, qualify well, and have a competitive car that gives us a chance to win a race.”

Labonte and Makar have developed an outstanding relationship at Joe Gibbs Racing. That has helped them stay ahead of the pack for most of the season.

“He was definitely very instrumental in getting this whole race team together way back when it started off,” Labonte said of Makar. “He’s got a lot of experience, a lot of talent; he’s worked real hard. You won’t see too many people any more dedicated than he is, as far as working on this deal. He’s not worried about other things as much as racing. There is no goofing off on his part. He’s been very instrumental, not only with what he’s done here, but also with the fact that he’s been with other teams.

“We get along really well because we both kind of grew up in it, and we have a lot in common. Our deal works pretty good. It makes it work even better than maybe other people’s deals.”

While Makar has experience at winning NASCAR Winston Cup championships, the team owner—Joe Gibbs—also knows what it takes to win titles.

As the head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Gibbs led the team to three Super Bowl titles.

Even though the NFL and NASCAR couldn’t be more different, competition is competition, and Gibbs understands what it takes to be a winner.

“He’s got a lot of football experience, but he definitely doesn’t set us up on what springs to put in the car or anything like that,” Labonte said of Gibbs. “He doesn’t have that ability, but he has the ability to see things from a distance and see if he thinks there is a problem as far as people, communication, and stuff like that. His job at the shop—he’s there every day; he’s a sponsor guy, he’s a team player guy as far as making sure everybody is working together, and I think that’s a big key. He hits kind of every aspect like that, and then Jimmy does the other stuff.”

By racing standards, Labonte is entering his prime as a championship contender. A Winston Cup championship in 2000 could serve as a springboard to the rest of his racing career.

It may be enough to put him on an even faster track to stardom.

“I think it could be,” Labonte said. “We’ve got a great race team, and we’re established really well, so I feel like that’s great.

“I’m 36 right now. I would like to believe that where I’m at now is where I’d like to be for a long time. There is no reason for me to think differently right now. But at the same time, I think you still have to realize that where you’re at today, you might not be there tomorrow. Right now we’re there, and every day you’ve just got to be thankful for what you have today and proceed on.

“Whether it’s a springboard for the next 5 or 10 seasons or whatever, sure I hope it is. I hope we never lose focus on what we’re doing today. There will always be challenges from here on out every day that we go through—personnel, competition, back down to life in general. I hope we can overcome all that stuff that makes you change or makes you do different things so that you can get back up on top or be a contender.

“I always say that all I ask for is to be in contention for a win. We don’t have to win every time, but I just like to be in contention because if you’ re in contention, you always have something that you can hold on to.”

Because NASCAR Winston Cup racing is so grueling, many of drivers express relief to clinching a championship more than exhilaration.

As usual, Labonte takes a levelheaded approach to that scenario.

“It might be a relief at the end of the year that you accomplished something, but it definitely wouldn’t be a relief forever,” Labonte said. “It would be a relief until February. We won a Busch championship and then came within three points of winning the next year, so obviously it wasn’t a relief where we said, ‘Aw heck, we got one. We don’t have to worry about it anymore.’ That’s not the point. The point is, until you’re done racing, you want to keep winning.

“I figure that the relief part of it is this: Enjoy it when you can, and celebrate when you can, party when you can, because in 20 years it will just be in a book, and somebody is going to read about it, and you won’t get to party again. Enjoy it when it happens.

“Nobody is going to want to celebrate with you in 20 years. They’ll be celebrating with somebody else.”