We always seem to want athletes to retire on their own terms in this country. Just like what we expect in our own line of work, past achievements and personal respect should combine for a lifetime of immunity, putting someone in position to make their own choice about when to walk away from the sport they love.
It’s a philosophy we’ve come to dream of; yet far more often, it turns into the nightmarish reality of seeing the rug pulled out from under our heroes instead.
That’s because our fantasy forgets there’s always a price to be paid for being special. The talent that got athletes to the peak of their profession is as fleeting as it is phenomenal — and all too often, athletes lose it long before they’re willing to call it quits at the right time. Monday was the latest example of that, as Bobby Labonte‘s poor performance behind the wheel of the No. 96 has to be at least a partial determining factor in not securing the funding needed for all 36 races. That opened the door for him to be replaced by a younger, sponsor-friendly alternative Monday, and with Roush Fenway having no shortage of those these days it’s no surprise Erik Darnell has been installed in a seat once reserved by Labonte’s Hall of Fame Racing team for seven of the final 12 events. Yet while the move will undoubtedly anger traditionalists all across NASCAR nation, it’s hard to fault Yates Racing for forcing out a guy whose best years may well be behind him for good.
Let’s take a look at things from their perspective for a minute. In seven races, you have a choice of running a car with no funding with a 45-year-old who has but one top five finish to his credit this year, or you can go with a fully-funded effort with a 26-year-old behind the wheel who has two top fives to his credit on the Nationwide side, pegged as one of the few up-and-coming drivers remaining in NASCAR’s top three divisions. If you’re an organization overwhelmed by sentimentality, well, then I can understand why you’d throw Labonte in the seat. But in the business world, nostalgia will only give you memories, not money, and Yates has made it clear through its actions in 2009 that they can no longer afford to run cars without the sponsorship support of someone else.
As for Labonte’s replacement, it’s now or never time for Darnell, whose future plans have a curious TBD beside them for 2010. While Jack Roush has gone out of his way to establish full-time Nationwide rides for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Colin Braun, Darnell increasingly appears to be the odd man out unless he can impress the Sprint Cup faithful with a solid seven-race stint that puts him in position to move up full-time with Yates next season. It’s as clear-cut an audition as you can get, and if he fails, the consequences are steep — expect the Midwestern driver to end up on the same path that former Mark Martin-wannabe replacement Todd Kluever wound up on a couple of years ago. Not sure how where that led? Well if that name doesn’t ring a bell, then I’ll leave you to figure out exactly which dead end street you’ll need to turn on to find him.
As for Labonte, well, it’s a near-fatal blow to a career that’s been on the skids ever since an ill-fated move to Petty Enterprises back in 2006. After struggling to fit in during his final years at Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte put his heart and soul into a legendary team trapped in the depths of mediocrity. He thought driving skills alone would be enough to pull the No. 43 back into Victory Lane; but as we’ve all learned in this day and age, the man behind the wheel can sometimes be the smallest part in a successful championship equation. Petty had neither the money nor the engineering to get back on top, and Labonte’s greatest regret may come to be failing to recognize the writing on the wall sooner, leaving when he still had options at top-tier organizations such as RCR, the former DEI, or even Michael Waltrip Racing.
Whether Labonte has any such options now is unclear. While Hall of Fame Racing cleverly described their relationship with Yates as a “partnership,” all they really have is an owner with some sponsor money and a driver under contract. There’s no equipment to take out of Yates and put in their own shop, no long list of employees to plop somewhere else, and no future if Ask.com refuses to return as a primary sponsor. Should that happen, HoF could very well cease to exist, their driver left adrift as a potential free agent in a year where there simply aren’t any rides for them.
Sure, it’d be great if one of the big names stuck their neck out and took a chance on him one more time (one ride that comes to mind immediately: Joe Gibbs’ fourth car, the No. 02, which is scheduled to run in two of the three races Labonte now isn’t: Texas and Homestead.) But the difference between Labonte and, say, a Martin is the performance level hasn’t remained consistent in the face of adversity. Even with a part-time schedule, Martin collected as many top five finishes in just one season than Labonte has had full-time in the last four. You have to go back to 2004 to find the last time the Texan challenged for the Chase (12th in points); and as for his last trip to Victory Lane? November 2003 at Homestead… the jumping-off point of a winless streak that’s rapidly approaching the six-year mark.
Certainly, no one wants to see a streak of 568 consecutive starts broken — but all good things must come to an end, right? There’s a difference between racing to race and racing simply to collect a check, and we’ve seen far too many of those the last few years as the money got more lucrative just as retirement started slamming certain drivers dead in the face. Labonte, should he bail, is a possible future Hall of Famer along with those men, the 2000 series champion who put up statistics not all that dissimilar to that of his older brother in an 11-year stint driving for Joe Gibbs. Speaking of which, 52-year-old Terry Labonte, over four years removed from a full-time ride, is sitting on the Cup entry list this weekend driving the No. 08 Toyota for John Carter. After “retiring” at the end of 2006, it turns out he also never knew the right time to quit.
Let’s hope his younger brother doesn’t make that same mistake.