It was announced this week that 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte was going to be replaced, in effect, by Roush Fenway Nationwide Series driver Erik Darnell in seven of this year’s final 12 races. It was the latest turn in a saga which saw Labonte start 2009 as the latest wheelman of the No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing machine, which in recent years has been piloted by such luminaries as Tony Raines and J.J. Yeley. Yet with Labonte’s name between the A and B pillars of the car, and sponsor Ask.com on the hood – replete with some memorable if awkward commercials – the team was able to survive what was almost certainly an untimely demise following the conclusion of the 2008 NASCAR season. But now, as the 2009 schedule approaches the Chase cutoff in a couple of weeks, it appears that Labonte will, in effect, be cut off from the No. 96 Ford – a car in which he has pulled yeoman’s duty in this year. Moreover, the move occurs on the weekend that the series comes to what has been the best track in Labonte’s illustrious career: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On the surface, such a switch appears confusing at best — except we’ve seen this same scene played out in NASCAR this season already.
Remember back at Phoenix this April, when the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team pulled the plug on the No. 8 Chevrolet — leaving Aric Almirola out of a ride? They were all of one year removed from a race the No. 8 team had in the bag before a questionable fuel stop with a few laps to go saw them handing over a sure win to Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. That makes as little sense today as it did then, with the No. 8 which once was the flagship of entire racing series becoming little more than a footnote and a fond memory 12 months later.
But I digress. Now, if you’re the Yates/Hall of Fame partnership, and you know you’re in position to have a promising run and land a sponsor… would it not serve a greater purpose to show up to that particular race and have a go at it?
This is Atlanta, for God’s sake! Labonte virtually owned this track from 1995-2003, scoring six wins, three seconds, and a pair of pole positions that once left an exasperated Mike Skinner to remark about the inability for virtually anybody else to win there since, “Bobby Labonte started showing up here with his damned Pontiac…” While Labonte has not posted a top 10 finish since Las Vegas in March, it is hard to argue against Atlanta Motor Speedway being his signature track, and with Ford having that new FR9 engine waiting in the wings, just begging to be turned loose somewhere it can do some damage – would there not be a more perfect weekend to give it a go than this one?
So, if there were to be a race that might produce something positive for the struggling Hall of Fame Racing team, it would have been this one over Labor Day weekend. And taking the Yates connection into consideration, what with Paul Menard being sponsored by the family operation (along with Matt Crafton in the Camping World Truck Series, Ed Carpenter in the IndyCar Series – with rumblings of becoming the series title sponsor in 2010), couldn’t they find some fluorescent green paint somewhere and slime the No. 96 Ford for Labonte at Atlanta?
I’m not one for handouts or entitlements, but this is a sponsorship opportunity that may have made some sense.
When this news story first broke on Monday, I thought the move was another example of an old guy being pushed out so a “young gun” could get a crack at Cup. That is not exactly the case here, but rather one of an established championship-winning veteran and fan favorite being ousted in favor of a younger, less experienced driver who has a sponsor in tow. It’s a move that closely resembles what happened to Johnny Benson, Jr. in the Truck Series earlier this season; a move to this day I do not condone, support, or pretend to even understand.
With that said, it wasn’t exactly like any type of switch was a big surprise; after all, the arrangement all along was that Yates Racing (coupled with their Roush Fenway affiliation) would be responsible for supplanting sponsorship for the seven events that Ask.com could not or would not be able to cover. We all know race cars run on money; but once they are running, who would you rather have wheeling it around: a guy with a really big tobacco trophy on his mantle, or a Truck Series driver with a Caesar haircut?
Well, I should stop right there. That’s not really fair or even justified; Darnell is a very capable and supremely talented young driver, and seems like a decent guy to boot. He’s won races, drives respectfully, and is not one to make a spectacle of himself like other young hotshots have made a habit of doing in recent years. Should Darnell be dismissed simply because of the appearance of him taking the seat of one of the most successful, cleanest, congenial, and gentlemanly drivers in the history of the sport?
Hardly. If anything, it should be supported and applauded. Besides, the last few young drivers who have came out of a full-time truck fielded by Jack Roush haven’t done too shabby (Darnell was a Truck Series regular prior to this season). Could this guy prove to be the next Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, or Carl Edwards? Certainly. And after towing the company line, driving a limited schedule this season, Darnell hasn’t done anything to not deserve his shot at a Sprint Cup ride.
Meanwhile, it isn’t exactly like Labonte is flipping over tables or putting his fist through drywall over this decision, either. Let’s be honest: it isn’t like Labonte’s in a position to do anything in the No. 96 other than make some cash, stay familiar with the CoT, and keep himself busy over the weekend. If anything, it might be a bit of a blessing for the struggling Texan, as it allows him to explore other opportunities to drive for teams who might be looking to add another car or infuse some veteran leadership within their ranks.
Hmm… speaking of which, didn’t Tony Stewart and Labonte used to work together? I heard he might be looking to possibly add a third car – assuming that one isn’t destined for a 100 lb. girl from Roscoe, Illinois.