ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- No one doubts Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart can compete for the Winston Cup championship this season. The only question is if the two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates can do it while driving a Pontiac.
It's no secret in NASCAR that the Grand Prix is the worst car on the track, leaving the five teams who daringly field them fighting an uphill battle, week in and week out.
"I know a Pontiac can win a championship because I did it," said Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup champion. "But to do so, you have to work your way out of a hole. No one wants to give us any help, so we work hard to get out of it and find ourselves climbing a mountain each and every week."
It's the most mind-boggling situation in NASCAR, especially for General Motors and its Pontiac teams.
In its seventh year without a change to the chassis, the Grand Prix has the oldest body on the circuit. Its last significant tweaking came in July 2000, when NASCAR permitted a new rear bumper cover, a part aerodynamically similar to what the Chevrolets and Fords were already using.
Since then, the maker has stood by and watched NASCAR give concession after concession to the other makes despite obvious struggles by the Pontiac teams. A year ago, the Pontiacs had a distinct disadvantage in downforce, proved in wind tunnel tests and in on-track competition.
Downforce, which keeps the car stuck to the track and prevents it from swerving -- especially in the corners -- is important at tracks one-mile in length or longer.
Pontiac had two of its five victories last season on those tracks, but Labonte's win at 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway was inherited after leader Jerry Nadeau ran out of gas on the last lap and his win at 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway isn't a typical oval because it has just three turns.
The only other three wins belonged to Stewart, who won on two short tracks and a road course.
It has left the five teams -- the two JGR teams, two entries driven by Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader for MB2 Racing, and Stacy Compton for A.J. Foyt Racing -- banging their heads in frustration and feeling defeated before they even get to some tracks.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been up in the (NASCAR) truck asking when will Pontiac be treated fairly," said Doug Douchardt, NASCAR group manager for GM Racing. "It's very difficult to understand why our problems are ignored and its even more difficult to get a team to drive a Pontiac when they see in black and white that we are at such a disadvantage."
NASCAR doesn't disagree that the Grand Prix has a downforce disadvantage. Winston Cup Series director John Darby admits the wind tunnel numbers back up the Pontiacs' claim, and based on data only, the car is inferior to the Dodge, Ford and Chevy.
Darby added, however, that it's hard to allow any relief when the Pontiac is so consistent week in and week out. The two Gibbs cars traditionally run in the Top 10, with Schrader and Benson not far behind. And in the final points standings last season, Stewart finished second, Labonte was sixth and Benson was 11th.
"Sure they go to some tracks and struggle in qualifying," Darby said. "But we don't make rule changes based on qualifying, we do it on results and they have some of the best results in the field. I don't know if I can say they are punished for their hard work, but it's hard to argue they need some help when they are so good every week.
"They certainly aren't locked into this current template for the entire year, but we've got to see, from a results standpoint, that they are really suffering."
The explanation is enough to make Greg Zipadelli's head spin. Stewart's crew chief knows his team can win its first-ever championship this year, but can't accept that they're forced to work harder to do it.
The way he sees it, the Pontiacs must work harder than everyone else to be competitive and in doing so, harm their chances of getting help from NASCAR.
"We bust our butts to keep up with the Fords and the Chevys and end up getting penalized for it," Zipadelli said. "They know we are at a disadvantage, they know we are going to tracks and don't have a chance no matter what we do, and still won't even the playing field.
"If ever there was a time for us to start looking at another make, it's now and it's serious. Why should we go on this way when we can just go drive another car and not have to work so hard?"
But there's help on the way, albeit a year away. GM has been working for some time on a new Grand Prix that is expected to be on the track at the start of next season.
Douchardt and other GM execs are tightlipped about the model, which is rumored to resemble the current Ford Taurus and Dodge Intrepid. The template must be completed and presented to NASCAR by July 1, and the sanctioning body has to approve or reject it by October.
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