Labonte's run was 'best news all day'
But on a day when Joe Gibbs Racing driver Tony Stewart won for the third time in four races, teammate Labonte delivered what Stewart called the best news of the day with a third-place effort that everyone at JGR hopes is a signal that the operation can once more become a two-car threat.
"It was a great run for us," Labonte said. "We've had a lot of stuff going on all year that we couldn't control. When we lost the alternator with 100 laps to go, I figured I wouldn't finish because I figured something would happen. Luckily we didn't have a problem. Third [place] was good for points and we've gained a lot of momentum."
The timing was perfect for Labonte, who worried that NASCAR Silly Season rumors were going to hurt his team's morale. Despite the team's disappointing finishes, the No. 18 crew had stayed upbeat and continued to work to find solutions for the program's ailments.
On Friday, rumors circulated that Labonte was on his way out of JGR at the end of the season. Having gone through this before and seen it take a toll on his crew, Labonte grew concerned. He quickly denied the rumors, but remained worried about how the team would react. Sunday's run was a good sign.
"We're trying to make a better race team out of it," Labonte said. "We're in a performance-based industry. If you don't perform it looks like you need to be out of there. You try to make it better. I've got strong ties at Joe Gibbs Racing so I'm not worried about [the rumors]. I just want to run good. There is no truth to the rumor. Running good today is good for our race team.
"The big thing is for the guys who work on the car week in and week out and keeping their head up when we have bad finishes or bad runs. Having a positive attitude is a big thing. We've had good cars -- not cars to win, of course, but cars that were competitive if we would have had track position. With the wrecks, blown motors and my mistakes, that's the first half of the year."
Labonte said his team was willing to count the first half as a loss and take it from here. Still back in 23rd in the points standings, Labonte points out that it wasn't long ago that he was 37th. Now, at least, he's on his way up.
"A lot of guys have a lot [of points] on us as far as the season and getting better," Labonte said. "We got a late start because of all that. But I'm proud of all the guys. It's a lot of hard work. The fact that our guys can hold their heads up high and get ready for next week and hopefully try to build and have some momentum is good."
It's better than good. Stewart, who is the hottest racer on the circuit right now, climbed down from the fences he's taken to scrambling up and made that real clear.
"Bobby switched his radio to my channel and congratulated me," Stewart said. "I asked him where he finished because I couldn't see and he said he finished third, which was the best news all day. It's finally showing that it's not just one of us that can do it. It shows the package we brought was solid. Bobby and I have two totally different driving styles and so that felt good for both of us to make this package work. On Monday, the morale for the race shop will be at an all-time high for the year."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.