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Labonte quietly ninth in Cup points

Bobby Labonte is NASCAR's stealth racer.

Unlike teammate Tony Stewart, whose off-track tantrums keep him
in the headlines, Labonte generally goes about his business without
the fanfare.

"Other people just get more attention than we do," Labonte
said. "I guess we probably do keep a low profile. We don't hunt
extracurricular stuff."

He certainly hasn't generated any headlines in the first 10
races this year. Still, Labonte is ninth in the NASCAR Nextel Cup
standings with three top-five finishes and five top-10s.

He trails leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by just 188 points and is
only 51 points behind Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, who are tied
for fifth place.

"We've had a little bit of bad luck or we'd have been higher in
the points," Labonte said, shrugging. "We've had two second-place
finishes and we easily could have won both of those races.

"We should have. But at least we ran good."

Last Sunday's race at California Speedway was typical of his
2004 resume.

Early on, Labonte's No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet was not a
factor. Then he slowly and steadily made his way toward the front.

By the waning laps, Labonte was second, chasing down leader Jeff Gordon, moving within 10 car-lengths and still closing before an
empty gas tank cost him a shot at victory in the Auto Club 500. He
still finished fifth.

Instead of an angry outburst about his team's fuel
miscalculation costing him a win, or at least another runner-up
finish, the smiling Labonte ran alongside Gordon's car on pit road,
shaking the winner's hand and patting him on the helmet.

Typical Labonte.

"It's interesting because he's the combination of being a
really nice guy and being full of competitiveness," said Hoyt
Overbagh, the engineer on Labonte's team. "He's got to run well,
if he doesn't run well he's not happy."

That's a side of Labonte the racing public rarely sees.

"I couldn't be doing this for a living if I wasn't pretty
competitive," said Labonte, the 2000 series champion. "You're
racing against the best in the business and there isn't much
difference between the guys who run up front and win and the guys
who don't.

"But it just isn't my personality to get in people's faces."

Labonte said he sometimes feels for Stewart, the 2002 series
champion who can't seem to stay out of the spotlight. The past two
races, Stewart has been involved in a series of collisions.

"I've done that before, too: no wrecks for 38 races then all of
a sudden you wreck in 10 in a row," Labonte said. "Tony's been
Tony for years. We all know that."

Meanwhile, Labonte goes quietly about the business of racing.

He's keenly aware of NASCAR's new championship formula, with the
top 10 drivers in the standings and any others within 400 points of
the leader after the first 26 races eligible for a 10-race "Chase
for the Championship."

"We're pretty confident we'll be in the top 10 in points after
26 races," Labonte said. "We've got a good enough race team to do
that.

"Probably, we just need more consistency in our finishes. We
keep having a good week and a bad week, a good week and a bad week.
We just need to be more consistently in the top five instead of the
top 10 - but it's hard to get there."

If Labonte does find that consistency, though, it's a safe bet
he'll do it quietly.