Labonte’s move to #96 means there’s big trouble at Earnhardt-Ganassi
Between the multiple mergers and the GEM-Sadler debacle, it’s been a pretty busy winter in NASCAR. But now comes perhaps the most surprising news of all: Bobby Labonte is finalizing a contract to drive the #96 Hall of Fame Racing car, which will join forces with the Yates Racing team in 2009.
Up until this news broke, it was widely accepted that Labonte would be going to the fourth Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing car (either #41 or #8, depending on who you asked). With the announcement that Labonte has gone in this new, surprising direction, it’s clear that all is not going as planned at the EGR team.
The fourth car has been awaiting a driver forever, and so far no one has been named. That leads me to believe that sponsorship isn’t coming any time soon, and there may be only three full-time cars (Truex in the #1, Montoya in the #42, Almirola in the #8) next year. I’m not even sure Almirola will make the full run if the sponsorship is not there.
Labonte has been talking to the EGR team, and it looks like things fell apart. The amount of time it was taking was a sign that things weren’t working out, but I’m still shocked he didn’t end up there. The Hall of Fame team is pretty weak, and even though a former Nationwide and Cup champion like Labonte gives them a better shot at success, don’t expect this new Yates/HOF team to be racing anywhere near the front this year.
I have to applaud the once-powerful Yates team for its efforts to get back to competitiveness. For the last couple years, they have struggled just to survive due to sponsorship woes, but have done pretty well considering the circumstances. Now, they’re trying to take the next step. Travis Kvapil showed flashes of greatness in 2008, but needs more consistency. Paul Menard came over, bringing critical sponsorship from his father, but he’s an average driver and probably won’t win them any races or titles any time soon. Labonte is a former champ, but I don’t know if this is the car that will help him get back to Victory Lane. If he can be competitive in this car, it will be impressive, considering how weak the #96 team has been in the past.
Is this a step up for Labonte? A step down? Or is he in the same kind of mediocre-to-bad equipment he was driving at the Petty team for the past few years? Only time will tell, and I’ll be rooting for Labonte. But I wouldn’t bet a nickel that he’ll actually do well in this car, and will be very impressed with him if I see it happen. It would put to rest the doubters who have viewed him as washed-up lately due to his struggles in the Petty car.
Meanwhile, over at EGR, this is a critical first year. Truex only has a one-year deal, so if the team struggles it’s clear he’ll be a highly touted free agent who will bolt as soon as possible. Montoya is another great driver who won’t put up with driving for a bad team, and even though he’s loyal to Ganassi would likely want to leave if the team can’t compete. If they do terribly and the stars leave, what quality driver would want to go there and ruin their career?
With all these mergers and driver changes, I’m looking forward to the 2009 season more and more each day. It will be very interesting to see who can perform better than their equipment and who will flounder.