Can Bobby Labonte re-emerge as a competitor in 2009?
Fans who are new to the sport likely don’t realize that Bobby Labonte was once considered among the best drivers on the track each week. At some tracks, especially Atlanta, he was the dominant driver for several years. He took on the biggest names in the sport with much success, won 21 races overall (including a nine-year stretch with at least one win), had 113 top-5 finishes, and was able to claim the 2000 Winston Cup Championship and finish runner-up the previous year. There is no doubt he is a racing talent.
But that was years ago. Since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s barely been treading water at the Petty organization, regressing to the point where he only scored two top-10 finishes in all of 2008, and no top-5s. This lack of success has largely erased his image as a strong competitor, largely because his time at the Petty organization turned him into lapped traffic most weeks.
With all the talk of a merger between the Petty and Gillett Evernham teams, it surprised no one when Bobby Labonte and the Pettys agreed to part ways this week.
Labonte’s decision to stay loyalty to the Pettys, which I still do not understand to this day considering the terrible equipment he was receiving, prevented him from taking the most premium ride available last year … the fourth Richard Childress car that ended up going to Casey Mears.
Now he is pretty much a lock to take over the #41 Target-sponsored car for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, as he’s the most qualified driver out there looking for a ride and there’s nowhere else he could go that would put him in any better situation.
Given the doubt lingering over this newly merged term, I am in no way predicting that he will be able to work miracles. But for those of us who enjoyed watching him in his prime, racing hard against and often beating the likes of Jeff Gordon (in his prime), Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, among others, it would be nice if Labonte could show at least a glimpse of that ability that carried him to a Cup title.
Mark Martin has showed that just because a driver is older, that doesn’t mean he is unable to compete. In a limited schedule, he competed several times for a win, and is hoping to have a strong year is his “final” full-season run in 2009 for Hendrick Motorsports.
If Martin can do it, I think Labonte has at least a chance to make a splash in 2009.
No one is expecting him to be a world-beater and topple Jimmie Johnson, but after running in 30th or worse most weeks for the past several years, I’m hoping to see him up front at least some of the time in 2009.
It would be a nice blast from the past.