G&G: We've read this before

Updated: May 11, 2004, 8:18 PM ET

What does this man want from me?! I shaved my goatee a long time ago.
Indy pressure? Sam Hornish Jr. might be feeling it, or maybe he's just got a headache.

Olivier Panis
Terry Labonte was solid just about all of last season.

The Texas native finished outside the top 20 just three times in the second half of the season and scored his first overall top-10 finish since 1998.

At a glance, it would appear that Labonte's 2003 magic dissipated over the offseason, as Labonte has just one top-10 and currently sits 21st in points. After all, perhaps the most memorable scene involving Labonte's No. 5 Chevrolet this year was the instance when Tony Stewart made a left turn into Labonte after the Talladega race.

But Labonte's '04 results thus far actually somewhat mirror his start from last year. After the first 10 races of the 2003 season, Labonte was tied for 18th place, 435 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. This year, he is in 21st, 442 back of first-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Labonte needs to match his second-half surge of a year ago. After all, while a top-10 last year meant a trip to New York for NASCAR's banquet, sitting in the top-10 after 26 races this year buys a ticket into the Cup series' inaugural championship chase. And with just 16 races (not 26) left before the chase cutdown, the time for Labonte to make a move is now.

Alas, he just might be doing that. Labonte is coming off his best finish of the season, a seventh-place result at Fontana.

"That was huge for our team at this point of the season," said Labonte, who gained three spots in the standings with the performance. "We've struggled and have been looking for a breakthrough. We had to travel all the way to California to find it, but I think we've got what we were looking for."

It also marked the first time Labonte had finished in the top 10 at California Speedway since his ninth-place finish in 1999.

"This is the best we've run at this track since the first couple years we came out there and I think that's a sign that we're heading in the right direction."

Labonte hopes to continue building momentum this weekend at Richmond, where he won the pole last year but finished 21st after experiencing shock problems. In his Cup career, Labonte has three wins -- the last coming in 1998 -- along with 13 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes in 51 career starts at Richmond.

"We're heading in the right direction and we've got tracks coming up where I've had success in the past," said Labonte, who also has three career poles at Richmond. "This is a great chance to build some momentum and get back in the points race."

OK, race fans.

We have come up with a quiz for you. It is quick. We can't promise painless, that we'll leave up to you.

Tell us when the following three paragraphs were written in a story by the Associated Press:

The Indianapolis 500 still has not sold out and does not yet have a full 33-car field. But Indy Racing League chief executive officer Tony George is not too concerned.

"If we end up with a short field, we end up with a short field," George said Friday. Drivers were still looking for rides Friday, just a day before pole qualifying. The official entry sheet lists 31 driver-car combinations. The 1947 race, with only 30 cars, was the last one without a full field.

George, who founded the IRL in 1994, blamed the weak U.S. economy and competition for the failure to fill the field early.

Stumped? No, you didn't say this week, did you? Of course not -- observant race fans know that only 28 driver-car combinations are listed on this week's entry sheet.

The rest matches up pretty well to last year's story, which in fact it is.

But this isn't a diatribe about how good or bad things are heading into the 88th Indy 500. We've all read countless takes on the subject, both sky-is-falling and rose-colored glasses versions.

If you haven't tired of the subject yet, there's a good chance your patience is of biblical proportions.

And when the green flag drops on May 30, those who watch the race will do so and leave the politics behind.

That said, there is no avoiding the subject right now. Why? Because Indy is not just a race. No, look at the schedule for May, and it's always been clear that it's a nearly month-long ritual.

It's like a mini season unto itself, complete with "Opening Day" (first on-track practicing), time trials including pole day, Bump Day, Carb Day and a festival parade among the key leadup events to the actual race.

And this is the conundrum for the Indy Racing League: How do you keep beloved traditions -- such as a starting field of 33 -- without them ever becoming contrived?

George took a lot of heat from fans and media for calling 33 just another number earlier this year. The league also took heat for having no bumping last year on Bump Day, which would be like Inauguration Day with no President.

But think about it: In most sports, barring lockout or strike, the historic games will happen no matter what. Interest may decline, but that sport's main event will still go on without any issue of how many teams are playing.

Racing doesn't have that luxury. Teams come and go, finances change, manufacturers and sponsors often create opportunity or take it away as they see fit.

For Indy, preserving all the traditions of an entire month -- let alone the race itself -- is a tall order.

We think that's what George was getting at when he called 33 just another number. It certainly wasn't a popular statement among Indy purists -- but those same purists weren't too pleased about no bumping on Bump Day, either.

Maybe a day will come again when small fields aren't a problem, but until then, we're guessing we could pull that AP lead from 2003 and make a few of you wonder what year you're really living in.

Memo Gidley
Any chance drivers like Christian Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve will come back to Champ Car? Why have teams passed on Memo Gidley?

Brad Van Swol
Milwaukee, Wis.

Interesting propositions, Brad. We agree that Christian would be wise to return to his open-wheel roots, and Champ Cars could be the best fit for him. He never acclimated to stock cars but to be fair, he never had enough seat time to learn how to excel in a completely different kind of racing. At one time he looked ready to be a future star in the CART series, but he also had some big accidents that set him back. As for Villeneuve, don't expect to see him racing in an American series ever again. If he returns to racing, it will be Formula One, and if you believe the British press, it could be as soon as next year. We like your thinking on Memo Gidley, who's been giving SCCA Touring Cars a try. Gidley's always shown talent but our best guess is that sponsors haven't lined up for him and to run in Champ Cars these days, you'd better bring some money with you.

Got your own questions about what's happening in the pits? Ask away, and we'll answer a question or two in the next Gas&Go.

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Tony Stewart
On sprint-car racing this past weekend at Sedalia, Mo.:
"It was a good form of therapy. ... It was definitely a good getaway after all the garbage we've been receiving the last couple of weeks."

Dario Franchitti
On Hornet Division racing at the Indy Speedrome:
"Now, that's entertainment. After I left, my face hurt from laughing so hard. It was a blast watching these cars go out there and race"

Jimmie Johnson
On his mentor:
"When you have somebody who is as humble and good as Jeff Gordon to pull from and learn from, it's been one of the biggest assets I could have ever hoped for."

ESPN.com's Gas and Go appears each and every Tuesday on ESPN.com.