_Richard “Slugger “Labbe has been crew chiefing in the Cup series since 1997. The last four seasons he’s been on top of the box for Paul Menard, both at Richard Petty Motorsports and now with Richard Childress Racing. Throughout his career to date, he’s notched five wins, 26 top 5s and 74 top 10 finishes. Labbe has won his five Cup races with three different drivers.
Coming off a workman-like 26th-place finish at Talladega, where the team had to overcome overheating issues brought on by some nose damage, Slugger Labbe and the No. 27 team are anxious to get to Darlington Raceway for the annual visit to the Lady in Black. Labbe’s team participated in the Goodyear tire test earlier this year and they think they will have something for the competition when the green flag falls in the Low Country of South Carolina. Before heading down that way, Labbe took a few minutes to speak with Frontstretch about tires, shocks and how you spend 3.5 hours during a rain delay._
Mike Neff: At Talladega it looked like you were having an engine issue. Did you figure out what happened?
Slugger Labbe: At Talladega we had an overheating problem. He ran into the back of the No. 34 and it knocked the grill shut so to speak. We had limited air going in so we had to pry it apart and then put some water back in it. The engine ran a little hot through no fault of the engine but just what happened due to the contact with the 34 car.
Neff: Were you surprised at the aggressive racing at Talladega after the kind of parade it was at Daytona?
Labbe: Not really, Talladega is more forgiving. When you come off of turn two and four you can run four wide at Talladega where the exits of turns two and four at Daytona are so much tighter you can’t be four wide on exit. Talladega is just more forgiving so you can be more aggressive.
Neff: What do you do for 3.5 hours when you can’t race because of the rain?
Labbe: Hang out, walk around, check stuff out. It can get boring. You know when your next pit window is. When caution comes out you plan on two or four tires and how many gallons of gas you need dictates what you do on a pit stop. You just wait for the next caution. We had Bob VanderGriff and his wife from the NHRA Top Fuel series hanging out with us. We chatted a bit during the race and explained some of the things we do.
Neff: What about during the rain delay?
Labbe: We all raided the refrigerator.
Neff: We’re headed off to Darlington. It was resurfaced a little bit back, what is the outlook for tires from Goodyear? Are they going to wear out some?
Labbe: Well, we were fortunate enough to do the tire test in the first week of February at Darlington. The tires do fall off about a second or so in a 25 lap run. That was the longest run we made, 25 laps. The fall off was right at a second. Y’know Darlington is the type of track that, when they repaved it a few years ago the tires didn’t fall off much at all. Now Darlington is starting to get its character back. The Lady in Black is still there and will reach out and bite you at any time. The tire fall of is huge. We’re going to be going back with the same tire we ran there last year. After everything we tried at the test they opted to stay with what they ran in the past. With that said, this Gen 6 car is going to have higher speeds than the previous car did as we saw in the test. I expect high speeds and pit strategy to come into play again.
Neff: Knowing that when you go into Darlington you’re most likely going to come back with some kind of right side scrapes and damage. Do you beef up or use a heavier gauge sheet metal on the right side when you are headed down that way?
Labbe: You can’t. (laughs) Rules are rules and the specs are what they are. Plus all of this stuff is a stamping that comes from the OEM Manufacturer and it is what it is. We don’t mess with any of that. Remember a couple of years ago Robby Gordon put a piece of wood inside of his car in the COT. They fined him $25,000 for that. There isn’t much that you can do different. No different than when you go from Martinsville to Daytona. You can’t do anything different.
Neff: You can’t put any extra bars in either?
Labbe: Nope, it is not allowed. Rules are rules.
Neff: Since they did the repave and the character isn’t what it used to be, are you able to be more aggressive on the shock package since the track is smoother than it used to be?
Labbe: Y’know when they first repaved it you could get more aggressive since the track had a lot of grip. As the track seasons and it begins to lose grip you can’t run as aggressive a package as you did when you did when the pavement was new. Usually more rebound makes the car drive tighter with the front tires. As the track loses grip you get tighter with the front tires so you have to back off of some of the packages you’ve run thanks to the seasoning of the track.
Neff: We’re 10 races into the season. Which of the races you’ve run so far is going to help you the most at Darlington?
Labbe: For us the test is going to help the most. We were fortunate enough to be included in the Goodyear test back in February. A lot of what we learned there was different than what we have done in the past at Darlington. So it was neat to have the opportunity to participate in the test and we did learn a lot of things and as a company we have implemented a lot of things that we learned at the test.
Neff: The penalties over the last couple of weeks are under appeal. Were you surprised to hear John Middlebrook reduce the length of the suspensions for the Penske crew members?
Labbe: Y’know, it is one of those things. The process is kind of weird to me that it comes down to one person and what their opinion is. Last year we got in trouble and appealed it through part of the process and then pulled it before we got to the end thinking we wouldn’t win. Looking back at it today I probably wish I would have appealed it to the very end like I thought we were going to. We bailed out before we got to the end, but you never know. It is all in how you present your case and obviously Penske and Hendrick have done a good job of presenting their cases. We’ll see how Gibbs does presenting theirs. It is a situation I hope I am never in again. It is no fun and in the end you have to respect NASCAR and what they do because it is their world.
Editor’s Note: Joe Gibbs Racing had their penalties reduced as well Wednesday from 50 points to 12, crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s suspension reduced from six races to one, and Joe Gibbs license reinstated, and will be able to accrue owner’s points. The Kansas win and pole will also count towards the Chase and next year’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona.
Paul Menard’s best finish at Darlington is 13th in his six career Cup starts there. That finish occurred last year after Menard started the race in the 14th position. After the Goodyear tire test, he and his team feel that they are poised for their best run ever at the historic race track. If Slugger Labbe has his notes in order with this new car on the old tire, the No. 27 very well could end up in Victory Lane on Saturday night.
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What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.