2008 Ride: No. 43 Petty Enterprises Dodge
2008 Primary Sponsor: Cheerios/General Mills
2008 Owners: Richard Petty (Feb. – June); Boston Ventures (June – Nov.)
2008 Crew Chief: Jeff Meendering
Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 2 top 10s, 21st in points
Best Finish: Sixth – Talladega (October)
High Point: On the track, there wasn’t much for Bobby Labonte to smile about, despite the fact his season looked good on paper early on. After two top-15 finishes in the first four races – including a 12th at his career-best track, Atlanta – Labonte was 14th in the standings, seemingly in the thick of the Chase hunt.
However, the driver’s personal high point likely came long after that false hope faded away. Simply trying to finish out the season by the time Talladega came around in the fall, Labonte had Lady Luck riding along as he dodged all the wrecks and put himself in position for a top-five finish before coming across the finish line in sixth. With restrictor-plate tracks always a weak point for Petty Enterprises, it was the best run for them at either Talladega or Daytona since a third for “King Richard” himself at the 1987 Daytona 500 – the year before the plates came into existence.
Low Point: While June was a time for hope at Petty Enterprises off the track, a merger with investment group Boston Ventures didn’t immediately improve on-track performance. With three finishes of 31st or worse in a four-race stretch, Labonte plummeted out of the top 20 in the Sprint Cup standings after the merger became public, ending any hope he had of improving on his 18th-place points finish in 2007. The biggest disappointment during that time came at Infineon, where a fourth-place qualifying run was wiped out by electrical problems that popped up just eight laps from the finish.
Summary: In his third season behind the wheel at P.E., this year was supposed to be the one where Labonte returned the No. 43 car to its former glory. An offseason move from the team’s longtime home in Level Cross, N.C. to Concord put them just outside racing’s Charlotte hub and in position to beef up their roster of employees. Along those same lines, the addition of former Hendrick car chief Jeff Meendering as head wrench was supposed to build a great foundation.
But the house never went up on solid ground. After an 11th in the Daytona 500, Labonte didn’t finish that high in a race until Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte. By then, rumors were rampant about an investor taking over at Petty Enterprises due to pending financial problems; and sure enough, in June Boston Ventures came on board and purchased an undisclosed stake in the team. With Labonte re-signing through the end of the 2012 season and the seemingly unlimited financial resources headed up by new CEO David Zucker, it seemed like suddenly everything was in place – again – to turn the season around.
Unfortunately for the No. 43 team, nothing changed. Labonte suffered through a summer of inconsistency and was never a serious contender to make the Chase. In fact, from Chicagoland in July to the end of the regular season at Richmond, he went eight straight races without a top-15 finish. And while the Chase started strong for the No. 43 (13th at Loudon, 14th at Dover, and a sixth two weeks later at Talladega) the team wasn’t able to carry that momentum through ‘till the end of the year, finishing out at Homestead with a 33rd-place dud. In the end, Labonte ended up with his lowest points ranking (21st), top 10s (two), laps led (four), average start (24.6) and average finish (22.6) during his three-year stint with Petty Enterprises.
To add insult to injury, in April sponsor General Mills announced they’d leave the team at the end of 2008 for greener pastures at Richard Childress Racing in 2009. Labonte was reportedly offered an opportunity to come along, but he turned it down to put his loyalty and faith into Petty. You think seven months later he might be reconsidering that decision in the face of what was described above?
Team Ranking: While the No. 43 team is always No. 1 in everyone’s hearts, it’s clearly No. 1 at Petty Enterprises. With the No. 45 simply struggling to make races each week with a hodgepodge of different drivers, Labonte ended up winning this one by default.
Off-Track News: For someone as quiet and laid-back as Labonte, it had to be difficult to be the subject of intense speculation all year long. Once General Mills announced their departure from the No. 43, the rumors never quieted around the 2000 Sprint Cup champ, who had to deal with everything from his potential free agency in early spring to what he would do this fall if Petty Enterprises began falling apart. And now that Labonte’s officially been released from his contract, his name continues to swirl around the news as people wonder where he’ll end up next. If I were him, I’d simply hide under a rock and let the pundits “pun” until his 2009 contract is complete.
2009 Outlook: The future for Labonte remains unclear, as after the season Petty Enterprises surprisingly developed severe financial problems. Without a sponsor for either of its two cars, they released Labonte from his contract in early December while preparing to be merged (or more like absorbed) into Gillett Evernham Motorsports’ three-car operation.
After being released at such a late date, it’s slim pickins’ for Labonte in terms of finding a ride. But the No. 41 for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is still open, and sources say it’s nearly a done deal for the veteran to slide behind the wheel of that car for 2009.
Quote of the Year: “I’m a partner in this program. It’s a deal where I’ve got a contract for four years of driving, and then I know that there’s options for later on then that, and I know that there’s opportunities to be more involved as an [ownership] partner. It’s not a percentage number, it’s just being a part of the game. So, I’m really interested in doing that, and I think that’s one of the things that made sure I want to be [at Petty Enterprises] for a long time.” – Bobby Labonte during a June press conference in which Boston Ventures’ investment stake in Petty Enterprises was made public. So much for an ownership stake in the “program;” apparently, Labonte’s good feelings about Petty’s new “partners” lasted less than five months
2006 Frontstretch Grade: B-
2007 Grade: C
2008 Grade: C-