The Frontstretch: Driver Review: Bobby Labonte by Cami Starr -- Monday December 17, 2007

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Driver Review: Bobby Labonte

Cami Starr · Monday December 17, 2007

 

Bobby Labonte
2007 Ride: No. 43 Petty Enterprises Dodge
2007 Owner: Richard Petty
2007 Primary Sponsor: Cheerios / Betty Crocker
2007 Crew Chief: Paul Andrews (Feb. – Aug.); Doug Randolph (Aug. – Nov.)

Stats: 36 Races, 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, 18th in points.
Best Finish: 8th (Phoenix – April; Bristol – August)

High Point: After Labonte scored just one Top 10 in the first 22 races of 2007, the addition of Doug Randolph as crew chief met with some immediate positive results. Labonte scored a ninth place finish in Randolph's debut at Michigan, and followed it up with another Top 10 at Bristol and an 11th place finish at California. That all led up to Labonte's 500th career start at Richmond, where he finished an admirable 16th; unfortunately for Labonte, that was where the magic fizzled; he finished in the top 15 just once more in the ten-race Chase.

Low Point: Fans were optimistic about Labonte's chances to possibly get back to Victory Lane in 2007, but the opportunity never developed. He started in the Top 10 on eight occasions this year, but turned that into a Top 10 finish just once (Michigan), showing that the team has plenty of work to do if they want to be consistently running up front when the opportunity presents itself.

Perhaps the most disappointing run for Labonte came at Sonoma, where the team looked poised to earn a Top 5 finish. After playing the fuel strategy game to near-perfection, Labonte was fifth with just two laps to go, in position for a surprise upset. However, as he took the white flag, the tank ran dry – and the No. 43 was forced to limp around to take the checkers. As a result, the team went from possible podium finishers to their first DNF of the season for running out of gas, winding up the day 33rd.

Summary: While Labonte fared much better than his teammate Kyle Petty, he was still never able to compete with the major teams on a consistent basis. However, his 18th place position in the year-end standings was the best for the No. 43 entry since John Andretti finished 17th in 1999. Rumors swirled around the future of the team throughout the year, as both driver and owner were courted by several suitors. But neither with the scenario of Labonte leaving for Richard Childress Racing, nor Petty Enterprises merging with Gillett Evernham Motorsports ever actually transpired.

Crew chief Doug Randolph (left) and Bobby Labonte spoke each other’s language when Randolph first came on board in late summer; but by the end of last season, their chemistry had fizzled.

2008 Outlook: Major changes lie ahead for Labonte and Petty Enterprises both off and on the track in 2008. For the first time in team history, Petty Enterprises won't be operating from the Level Cross, NC headquarters that Lee Petty established back in 1949. Instead, the team will be moving closer to the rest of the NASCAR world, settling into the former home of Robert Yates Racing in Mooresville. On the track, Labonte will once again go through a change at crew chief, with Jeff Meendering coming over from his role as car chief for the No. 24 to lead the team. Meendering led Jeff Gordon to six straight Top 10s during his stint as interim crew chief during Steve Letarte's suspension, so he’s got a short history of solid success under his belt.

Considering some owners were eyeing Labonte for a possible vacancy, it's obvious his driving skills are still sharp as ever. If the pairing between the 2000 Champion and the young, upstart crew chief takes off, this team should continue their climb back into a competitive threat for Victory Lane.

2006 Frontstretch.com Grade: B-.
2007 Grade: C.

Editor's Note : The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close - which means it's time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from A.J. Allmendinger to J.J. Yeley. Want to know when your favorite driver's getting featured? Check out this link for our writing schedule, and be sure to keep coming in every weekday this offseason for even more original content by the Frontstretch!

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