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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

After latest blow, Bobby Labonte may be near the end of his career

Deep down, Bobby Labonte understands.

He knows that it takes money to race, and that hadn’t signed up to sponsor the whole year. He knows that Northern Tools has agreed to fill in the sponsorship gap at Hall of Fame Racing, and that they prefer to have Erik Darnell in the car, so that’s what will happen in those seven races.

But it doesn’t mean he’s not extremely pissed off.

I would be pissed off if I were a former Winston Cup champion who had started every race for the past 16+ years. Getting kicked out of your ride for more than half the remaining 2009 races, to be replaced by a young driver who has never even started a Cup race, is going to be very demoralizing and shock your world.

Labonte’s statement, obviously written by the team’s PR people (nobody talks like this), was very cordial and understanding:
"This is a move that will be beneficial to Yates Racing surviving this difficult economic time," Labonte said in a statement released by the team. "Of course, I'm disappointed that the sponsorship environment is so challenging right now, but I intend to make the most out of the remaining races that I'm behind the wheel for, DLP and Hall of Fame Racing."

The real statement, after he realized he wouldn’t even race at Atlanta (his best track), breaking his streak of nearly 600 straight races, was probably more like a string of four-letter worlds.

But as I always say, the numbers don’t lie. Looking back at Labonte’s numbers for the season so far, it’s no surprise the new sponsor wants some fresh blood in the car for the races it is covering.

With the exception of a fifth-place finish in the Las Vegas race this spring, Labonte and the Hall of Fame team overall have been simply terrible. It’s not all his fault, as there are clearly some equipment issues. The team is not producing good enough cars, but an average finish of 25th is indicative of problems bigger than the car quality. It means the team isn’t connecting.

I’m not saying Labonte isn’t talented … runs like the one he had at Las Vegas are proof he still has it in him. But it’s just not working out for him at the Hall of Fame team. Prior to all this, there were already rumors he would be gone from the team in 2010, and based on his finishes I don’t see him being too upset about this.

But that opens up another big problem: Where can he go?
He’s not bringing a sponsor with him, so no team will be likely to want to hire him. For an aging driver like Labonte, the choices are few. His glory days are behind him, and the best he can hope for is to land at a mid-pack team and have a good day once in a while … something he has already struggled to achieve at Hall of Fame.

The worst-case scenario is to end up like his older brother and many others, who are so bent on continuing to race they end up behind the wheel of start-and-park teams. To be frank, it’s embarrassing to watch sometimes.

Bobby Labonte has had a great career, and I watched him put on some great shows during his championship run and through his years at Joe Gibbs Racing. But if the situation continues to deteriorate for him at Hall of Fame, and no decent team calls on him to race their cars, his legacy might be better served if he just stopped racing.

I don’t think he’s out of talent, but he may be out of decent options of where he can race. He has a past champion’s provisional, so any struggling team would love to have him as a guaranteed way to make the field. But if that’s the only situation that would let him keep racing, I don’t see how he would want to be out there running in junk cars.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobby Labonte chose a different path when he left JGR for Petty Enterprises. He was made promises at Petty that never materialized with the Dream Team that was put together for him. When last minute sponsorship problems forced Labonte out at Petty, there were no other rides available, just an underfunded team with no experience in the winners circle and an association with the has been Yates Racing. There was no chance Labonte could succeed with that team. Labonte was not the problem. I hope Labonte is able to continue to race, in a time when available real talents are few, Bobby Labonte is a proven winner.

September 1, 2009 at 9:27 AM 
Anonymous J.J. said...

I think it's entirely possible that Labonte could end up at EGR or even RCR if McMurray doesn't get one of those rides... He brings some interesting things to a team, such as Past Champions provisional (I forget if Nascar is doing away with that or not) -- he'd be 1st in line for it since Stewart is a lock for the top 35. And he'd be a good seat warmer until a development drive could take over...

I figure if Rusty Wallace moves up to Cup with son Stephen, that maybe McMurray could end up there as well, but if not Labonte could too and serve as mentor/guarantee to start the races.

Or, he could end up with Phoenix racing--sponsored car, Finch would love to not to have to qualify via speed to get in.

September 1, 2009 at 3:32 PM 

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