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Side-by-Side: Can the Pettys Survive Without Bobby Labonte?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: In the wake of the sponsorship announcement that General Mills is leaving the organization, it’s assumed Bobby Labonte will follow suit. Does Petty Enterprises need the 2000 Cup champ on its roster in order to remain a viable entity in Sprint Cup?

Petty Can Survive Without Labonte

It’s not that Petty Enterprises hasn’t gotten a boost from Labonte’s presence, nor should they kick him to the curb exactly – he is a champion and easily one of the most marketable drivers in Sprint Cup racing – but Petty Enterprises will be fine without him. Labonte still hasn’t gotten them back in victory lane, and probably won’t this year; and with General Mills leaving the team for Childress no matter what happens, it really wouldn’t make much difference if he stayed.

Labonte was hardly the only move Petty made to strengthen the team in recent years; he was just the most visible one. Petty hired Robbie Loomis, a championship crew chief with Jeff Gordon, to be the Executive Vice President of Operations, and they brought over Jeff Meendering – car chief for that same No. 24 team that won six races last year – to be the new crew chief for the No. 43 car. You can’t convince heavy hitters like those two to come on board without demonstrating commitment to running well.

Most significantly, the team has uprooted their whole operation and moved it from Level Cross to Mooresville. Level Cross was the King’s birthplace, if there’s anything that should convince outsiders that this team is moving forward, that should be it.

The organization also appears ready to announce an investor along the lines of Gillett or Fenway soon. Nothing is written in stone, but should that happen, Petty Enterprises may just have the resources to compete with the Big Boys yet. Sometimes, success comes in just outlasting everyone else; if Petty Enterprises keeps grinding it out, sooner or later they are going to surpass the teams that aren’t, and we all know who they are.

The ultimate goal is performance, and that is more than just the driver. Labonte has no wins, just three top fives and eight top 10s in 78 races. That’s better than Jeff Green did in his place; but a decent driving talent should be able to perform at a high level, especially if the quality of the equipment improves. Petty seems determined to make that happen with or without Labonte.

There will be some good drivers available next year. Petty isn’t likely to land Martin Truex Jr. or Greg Biffle, but David Ragan and Dave Blaney may be looking for jobs, giving the team a choice to go after youth or experience. Not to mention there’s other veterans out there that are looking for rides: names like Sterling Marlin, Ward Burton, Ricky Craven or Kenny Wallace. And should Labonte depart for the currently greener pastures at Childress, Scott Wimmer will be looking to another team for a possible Cup ride.

They also have an aspiring young talent in Chad McCumbee. Petty Enterprises is rightly bringing him along slowly; but he isn’t quite an unknown quantity. Dale Earnhardt fans remember his playing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the ESPN movie 3. That won’t hurt in terms of building his fan base over time. Labonte is going to be 44 this May. It’s not that old for a driver, but Petty is going to have to plan for a future without him that includes that type of young talent.

Along those lines, let’s not forget Petty’s past as a program with excellent sponsor-team relationships. The No. 43 car was not only driven by the King, but PE is owned by possibly the most marketable driver in the sport, even today with the No. 45 car not finishing in the top 15 very often. Petty Enterprises and its owner are remembered by racing fans and non-racing fans not just for success on the track, but also for success in the community. What sponsor wouldn’t want to be associated with the heart of the Victory Junction Gang?

Remember, Petty Enterprises survived the departure of one of the greatest ever to get behind a wheel when King Richard retired in 1992. They can survive the departure of Bobby Labonte. – Kurt Smith

Without Labonte, Petty Enterprises In Trouble

With the announcement that longtime sponsor General Mills is leaving Petty Enterprises for Richard Childress Racing at the end of 2008, it is only a matter of time before Labonte announces his departure as well. And this spells disaster for the future of Petty Enterprises.

Sponsorship at Petty Enterprises has been a concern in recent seasons already. Over the last few years, the No. 45 has relied on a patch-quilt of sponsors, at times failing to sell a full season’s worth of races. Now, with the No. 43 losing a full-time primary sponsor, and with few prospective associates to step up, Petty is faced with finding an additional 38 races of financial support. And if Yates Racing has proven anything about the current sponsor market, it’s going to be a challenge.

Losing Labonte will make that search even harder. The loss of Labonte marks the loss of a tremendously talented racecar driver. There is no question that Labonte has made the No. 43 vastly more competitive on the racetrack since taking the ride in 2006; that being said, the results of the No. 43 still aren’t all that impressive on paper. Labonte has scored only three top-10 finishes in the last 46 Sprint Cup races and has yet to score one in 2008. These results, when coupled with the struggles on-track of the No. 45, does not make the Petty race teams appear competitive to prospective sponsors.

Further, Labonte is an immensely valuable driver to any organization, not only because of his talent but also because of his past champion’s provisional. Having such status has given Petty Enterprises a guaranteed spot in the field for its No. 43 car, which, given Petty’s recent struggles with qualifying (the two Petty cars are averaging a start of 29.6 in 2008 with a DNQ at Martinsville) adds up to a huge loss for the team. Losing a past champion’s provisional makes marketing to sponsors even more difficult, especially for a team whose racecars have consistently flirted with the Top 35 in owner points cutoff (the No. 45 is currently outside the Top 35, while the No. 43 nearly fell out, even with Labonte behind the wheel, in 2006).

Perhaps most importantly, Petty Enterprises has no development programs, be it in the Nationwide Series, the Truck Series or elsewhere. This means there are no drivers or crew members that are up and coming for the Petty teams to market as their future. In short, whoever replaces Labonte in the No. 43 is going to have come from another team; and given the current performance of the Petty cars plus their uncertain sponsorship situation, it is highly unlikely any driver of a comparable caliber to Labonte will come calling. Lower-tier drivers have struggled in Petty equipment in recent years; rookie McCumbee had an average finish of 33.0 in his two starts with Petty Enterprises last year, while John Andretti averaged a 29.8 in his five starts.

To sum it up, Bob Margolis perhaps said it best. “Petty Enterprises had hoped signing a past champion like Labonte would help return the organization to respectability. It hasn’t worked out that way.”

And if a past champion like Labonte can’t get the ship righted with a fully-sponsored ride, it’s questionable if any driver out there can. – Bryan Davis Keith

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