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The Champ Knows Best

Jeff Gordon has some advice for Bobby Labonte: "Get ready."

On the verge of his first Winston Cup championship, Labonte's getting pep talks from other drivers. He won't accept their congratulations - not yet, that might jinx his title - but if he does win the title he can glean some tips from the past champions roaming the garage.

To say Labonte's life will change is an understatement.

Think those sponsors are demanding now? Wait until they've financed a championship.

Fans? Man, thousands of people will soon be claiming to have loved Labonte since before he was born.

And reporters? Forget about it. The defending champion is required to come up with an opinion on everything from rules changes to paint schemes.

"I've already told Bobby to prepare and get ready for a very busy and hectic schedule," said Gordon, a three-time winner. "Winning the Winston Cup championship is one of the greatest thrills, but it's also some of the hardest work you'll ever do . . . The champion has a lot of responsibility."

Winning the title opens a whirlwind tour of activities. Appearances begin the day after the final race at Atlanta. They don't end.

Terry Labonte made about 25 appearances the year before he won his second title in 1996. That number tripled the following season.

"There's a lot more people pulling on you," Terry Labonte said. "All the associate sponsors and stuff, everybody wants something, and they're entitled to something, but everybody's wanting you for this or that. It doesn't ever seem like a big deal until the end of the year and you add it up."

Not that he's complaining. The champions may be stunned by the demands of the title, but they'll never regret it.

Gordon, a veteran to the championship game, appreciated each title more. He learned to relax and enjoy the extracurricular side.

"There's nothing sweeter than being the champion," he said. "Especially in New York, they treat you like a king."

While people ask about the lucrative nature of winning a title, Gordon dismisses the money aspect. If the driver is in position to win the championship, he's already well-paid and winning purses on a regular basis. For these men, the Winston Cup race is about something more basic.

It's about winning.

"Winning the championship, seeing that trophy in your room and memories from that year and what you accomplished, that's going to stick with those guys a lot longer than the money," Gordon said, smiling fondly.