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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lajoie wise to accept punishment; Labonte's situation unfortunate

I could use this space to rail on about how stupid Randy Lajoie was to smoke pot just a few days before a drug test was to be issued to him by NASCAR. But that has been done by so many people in the last day and a half that I wouldn’t be saying anything new. Let’s just say I agree it was stupid.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this situation. The whole situation is just strange to me. Lajoie, a TV commentator, decided to become a spotter for a Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide team, years after retiring from the series – in which he won 2 championships in the late 1990s.

As a commentator on ESPN who does a fairly good job, especially when describing the technical side of racing, he knows all about the rules for people involved in the sport, and that a drug test was coming.

I will give Lajoie credit, though: He’s owning up to his mistake and will accept all punishment NASCAR has to give him. He will complete whatever rehab they order and submit to all drug testing required. Unlike Jeremy Mayfield, who acted like a fool and ran NASCAR around town while trying to avoid taking his ordered drug tests, Lajoie is taking his medicine – however bitter it may be.

He has a family whom he no doubt feels he has let down, and is wise enough to do whatever NASCAR wants him to because it will get him back on TV and possibly into an on-track job as soon as possible.

"I plan to follow the recommendations of the substance abuse counselor and suggestions of NASCAR and hope that someday I can prove to NASCAR and all the people with whom I associate that I have taken such steps to see that instances such as this do not reoccur,” he said in an interview Tuesday, in which he sounded very emotional about the whole situation.

There is one bone I have to pick: I understand that Lajoie should be barred from on-track duties like spotting, which could endanger drivers’ lives if he was impaired. But why should ESPN suspend the guy? All Lajoie admitted to doing was smoking one joint after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in late May, and he insists that he is not a habitual user. If they believe what he says, is smoking one joint really a reason to ban him from talking on a NASCAR TV show about how the race went on Sunday? I don’t think anyone’s life is in danger there.

So while NASCAR’s response is appropriate, I don’t see what ESPN’s rationale is. Can they honestly say that none of the people who speak on their channel have ever smoked pot? I seriously doubt it. If his performance on air had suffered due to drug use, a suspension would be justified. But as a viewer, I hadn’t noticed any change in how he’s performed on air.

To wrap things up, this unique case of this pretty big name in NASCAR getting busted is a good test of the new NASCAR drug policies and whether they will work to discourage reoffending (as Shane Hmiel did twice to earn a lifetime ban). Whether or not that instance in May was the only time he used the drug (which is pretty doubtful, but I suppose possible), I’m pretty sure this little brush with the NASCAR rules will get the green stuff out of Lajoie’s diet for a very long time.

Labonte’s situation a shame
It’s been a busy week in Bobby Labonte news. He has parted ways with the #71 TRG team; he will race this weekend in Robby Gordon’s #7 car (allegedly without start-and-parking), then race the next two races for the James Finch #09 team at Daytona and Chicago.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Gordon may have a car for him for the Brickyard.

As someone who has respect for Labonte and watched him dominate races for many years and win the Winston Cup in 2000, I have to say that this is getting silly.

On one hand, I will give him credit. He left the TRG team, which had high hopes of competing that were derailed by a lack of sponsorship, because he couldn’t do the start-and-park thing. That’s good news, because it’s a shame he did it in the first place.

The alternative, though, isn’t much better in my eyes. Bouncing from team to team just to keep racing is a bit of a sad situation, and I wish it wasn’t happening. I know Labonte wants to race, and don’t fault him for that, but I think it’s beneath a champion like him to be ride-hopping like this. When does it end? Will he jump from ride to ride all season?

If he can’t find a full-time ride that doesn’t involve start-and-parking, I say Labonte should take some races off until he can get a full-season deal somewhere with sponsorship and settle in somewhere. I remember him in his prime, and he was a great champion. But as I said when he first began to start-and-park, if he can’t land a ride that will allow him to race full-time, he should step away for a little while. He’s had a great career and no one would think any less of him for taking a break due to lack of sponsorship or a ride. If something comes around that allows him to race, he would be welcomed back.

Far too many people remember the floundering years of past champions like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, who raced far too long past their prime, and I hope Bobby Labonte doesn’t follow in their footsteps and endlessly hop from ride to ride.

New crew chief for Kenseth
Amid the endless news flowing Tuesday was the announcement that Matt Kenseth once again has a new crew chief. Jimmy Fennig has stepped in and Todd Parrott is out.

Whatever the reason, all I know is this -- Kenseth is doing decent, but not contending for wins as much as he used to in the past. If he ever wants to return to that level, he needs to find a crew chief that works well him and stay with that person for a while. It seems like he changes crew chiefs more often than some people change their socks.

Going “rogue”
I saw an interesting note in the release that stated the Front Row Motorsports penalties had been upheld that caught my eye. The team blamed the illegal parts that cost them so heavily on “rogue elements” within the team.

There are two ways to read that. One is sabotage, but I doubt that’s the case.
So the other option is that some crew members on the team decided to use the illegal parts and not tell anyone, hoping they wouldn’t get caught. If that’s the case, they are quite stupid for doing so, because the NASCAR tech inspection process is so airtight now you can’t get away with that kind of crap.

This isn’t 1960 and you’re not Smokey Yunick. Times are different, and you won’t get away with it like he did.

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