NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side by Side: Who’s a Chase Pretender – Bobby Labonte or Michael Waltrip?

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: Looks like the old guys are making a comeback in NASCAR these days, as two 40-something drivers have cracked the Sprint Cup top 12 three races in. Which one has the best chance of maintaining their solid start – Bobby Labonte or Michael Waltrip?

Labonte Likely To Remain In Chase Contention

A string of crashes, engine failures and good ol’ fashioned strong performances by mid-level teams have left many top stars outside the top 12 and inserted “middle-aged” drivers, Labonte and Waltrip, inside the Chase bubble. In the long run, many are betting against the two longtime Sprint Cup mainstays to continue their strings of consistency – but if one of them were to remain on this early season roll, that man would be Labonte.

Labonte is a smooth, reliable driver, one who takes care of his equipment and nurses it to solid finishes. In highly inferior Petty Enterprises Dodges for the past three seasons, the 2000 Cup champ finished solidly in the top 25 in points each year, finishing almost half of those races he entered on the lead lap. Now, at Hall of Fame/Yates Racing this season, Labonte has inherited better engines and chassis to work with – especially since the No. 96 team has direct Roush Fenway support. After three years of trying to turn a 25th-place car into a 15th-place finish, he now has Fords capable of running top 10 or better at several tracks right off the truck.

But while the difference in equipment is notable, the main factor between Labonte and Waltrip’s chances of remaining in the top 12 is the wrecks factor. Waltrip is the type of driver who has a knack for getting caught up in trouble – whether of his making or someone else’s. And even if trouble constitutes simply a harmless spinout, any kind of on-track incident is likely enough to cause an irretrievable loss of Sprint Cup points.

Examples like Sunday’s race are a microcosm of how the points game normally plays out for Waltrip. Running within shouting distance of the top 15, the driver/owner was running the high line at Las Vegas when he lost control of his No. 55 Camry, dinging the wall and ruining the rest of his day. Labonte, in contrast, kept a steady hand on the wheel, guiding a top-10 car through the attrition of others to turn it into a top-five finish. All it takes is three or four more runs like this per season, and that’s a good 100-point differential between the two men – more than enough to keep Waltrip looking up at Labonte in the Sprint Cup standings each week.

Another problem of Waltrip’s that could keep him from performing is simply the stress of running his own race team. Yes, Waltrip has brought Michael Waltrip Racing around a huge corner, as its other entry, the No. 00 of David Reutimann, is having consistent success – as is Waltrip’s own car. Still, the rigors of juggling competition decisions along with sponsorship appearances and negotiations have to distract Waltrip from driving more than Labonte. This diverted focus could leave Waltrip at a competitive disadvantage in arguably the world’s most competitive racing series; and in this day and age, even a small disadvantage can mean a lot.

Two months before the start of the 2009 season, Labonte had no idea which team he would even drive for – if he even scored a ride in Cup at all. Now, not only has he ended up joining a team that has the support of one of the sport’s most dominant organizations, but he gains a sponsor in Ask.com that’s decided to donate most of their 2009 marketing budget solely to NASCAR. Paired with a reenergized team, an enthusiastic company, and filled with a desire to prove he can still get the job done, the 44-year-old is enjoying the best start to his season in years. A near-miss on the Chase in its first season of 2004, Labonte’s come closer than Waltrip ever has to the playoffs… and certainly knows how to play the game when it comes to contending for a title.

Though it’s a little too early to really count points as of yet, when left to choose between a Cup champion in decent equipment and a clumsy, overstretched driver that has struggled most of his career… there’s no question you place your money on the champ to make the Chase. – Doug Turnbull

The Odds Are Better For Waltrip

It’s easy to look at the careers of Labonte and Waltrip and conclude that in similar equipment, Labonte would run circles around Waltrip. No one here is suggesting that Waltrip will ever be a champion driver – his four career wins were all the result of DEI’s dominance at plate tracks when he drove for them.

But Waltrip appears to ultimately have an edge in two key departments in 2009: team stability and amount of resources. And that, in the end, should be enough to hand him the edge over Labonte when it comes to staying in top-12 contention this season.

Now, this isn’t to say for a minute that Waltrip is a better driver than Labonte, so before you go jumping down my throat, let me be clear on that.

It’s just that Labonte’s team, Hall of Fame Racing, has not shown the ability to build top-10 racecars consistently – no matter who slides behind the wheel. Granted, Labonte may be the best of all of the drivers that have piloted the No. 96, but the best driver in the world can only go so far in mediocre equipment.

Yes, Labonte has shown promise with a fifth at Vegas. But Vegas is only one race; and not only did Reutimann finish fourth in MWR equipment there, but both drivers benefited from attrition that day. There was race-ending engine trouble for at least five drivers who certainly could have been in the top 10 on Sunday, paired with the setbacks for Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin – who all had a shot to get there themselves.

Besides that run, a 20th at Fontana is only slightly above average for the No. 96. Certainly, their new sponsor Ask.com seems to be very interested in their involvement in the sport – shelling out whatever dough it took to become the Official Search Engine of NASCAR. But if Hall of Fame puts up numbers like they did last year – and three races isn’t enough to say they won’t, especially once Hendrick and Roush rid themselves of whoever their official valve stem provider is – they may grow impatient and look for better results elsewhere.

In contrast, Michael Waltrip has two devoted sponsors in his pocket, thanks largely to both his marketability and likability in TV commercials. In addition, MWR is starting to show some signs of life in season three. Reutimann, like Labonte, benefited from attrition at Vegas – but he hasn’t finished lower than 14th this year. Waltrip may have lucked into a seventh at Daytona, but he ran fairly well at Fontana, finishing 14th there to notch a second straight top 15. On Sunday, he was running as high as 10th in Vegas before an accident dropped him down to 27th. The No. 55 bunch aren’t top 10 every week – yet – but they don’t seem to be low 30s every week anymore, either.

It has been suggested that lack of testing has been the reason for somewhat skewed results early this year. That may be true (personally, I would suggest that blown engines for the sport’s major stars are the more likely culprit, and that the early ending at Daytona still is a factor in the standings just three races in). But if the lack of testing truly is playing a part in helping both Labonte and Waltrip (and Reutimann), then the edge will ultimately go to Waltrip. Not only does Waltrip have two of his cars in the top 12, but JTG-affiliated Marcos Ambrose sits 20th just three races in. On the other hand, Labonte’s two “teammates” in the Yates Racing shop – Travis Kvapil and Paul Menard – sit outside the Top 35 in owner points right now, with Kvapil even failing to qualify at Las Vegas last Friday. There’s no guarantee the shop will even continue to field three cars, with sponsorship for Kvapil’s No. 28 only secure through Bristol in mid-March.

As the season goes on, an organized MWR will gather more information from practices than Hall of Fame will; and on top of that, MWR’s sponsorship looks a bit more solid at this point – although Ask.com seems very committed. If NAPA is still around after Michael’s rough debut in 2007, it’s not likely that they’ll give up now, especially with the No. 55 making every race nowadays. And Aaron’s has been on board with MWR for a while, so they’ve proven their willingness to stick out the rough times. For Labonte, it’s so far, so good with Ask.com… but again, they’re new to this.

Skewed standings for the moment aside, we know the cream will eventually rise to the top in 2009. Jeff Burton, Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. aren’t going to stay where they are, and Labonte and Waltrip aren’t likely to remain in the top 12. Where they end up will depend a great deal on the quality of their equipment on race day… and with a guaranteed extra car in the shop to go along with solid sponsor and manufacturer backing – compared to a brand new sponsor and manufacturer on a one-car team – Waltrip seems more likely to have a decent season than Labonte does. – Kurt Allen Smith

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