The past weekend’s race at Atlanta would appear to have been nothing short of vindication for Bobby Labonte. A past champion who was unceremoniously semi-released from his Cup ride in favor of a part-time Nationwide Series driver, Labonte did exactly what any driver in his shoes would like to have done; he flat outran his old ride. And in this case, he did it in an inferior car, driving the TRG Motorsports No. 71 car into the top 20 while his replacement at Hall of Fame Racing, Erik Darnell, raced the track all night en route to an uneventful 28th-place run in his Cup debut.
And that’s all she wrote, right? Hall of Fame Racing got what was coming to them for replacing a respected, popular veteran for the sake of the almighty dollar, the champ proved he could still get it done, and Darnell proved to be unable to improve the performance of the No. 96 car.
This would all hold true, if one weekend was enough to conclusively prove anything. But, one race does not a compelling case make. The fact is, this isn’t the first time that Labonte’s gotten off to a rip-roaring start in a new ride. And each time he’s done that, it’s fizzled in the long run.
Rewind back to the end of 2005, when Labonte shocked the NASCAR community with the announcement that he would be leaving the same Joe Gibbs Racing team he won the 2000 Cup title with for a seat at Petty Enterprises. For a while, it looked like a genius move, with Labonte a threat for the win at Daytona and Richmond while scoring three top-10 finishes in the first eight races. Labonte went on to score eight top-10 finishes that season, and all signs pointed to 2007 as the year that Petty Enterprises would finally turn the corner, the No. 43 finally return to victory lane.
It’s hard to put a finger on what happened in 2007, but it wasn’t the same 2006 season that saw Labonte driving to re-establish both himself and the No. 43 team. Instead, he drove much like the establishment at Petty… a lot of top 25s, a handful of top 10s (only three in 2007) and no consistent threat for the checkers. Sure, the No. 43 car was improved… from backmarker to mid-pack marker.
And the same could be said for 2008. The top 15s were there, but the resurgence of Petty Enterprises, the consistency needed to challenge for wins and a Chase berth, the very things that the placement of a Cup champion in the No. 43 were supposed to accomplish, never came close to fruition. This wasn’t lost on the team’s sponsors, who filed on out after a third season saw much more of the same from what was once Dodge’s flagship.
That left Labonte to move on to HoF and another new challenge for 2009. Much like when he was hired at Petty, it was thought that adding a title-winning driver and long-time veteran would help the Yates camp return to the front of the field, that Labonte could build upon what Travis Kvapil had started in 2008 like he was supposed to have built on what Jeff Green started in the Petty camp in 2004 and 2005.
Unlike it was thought, but exactly like how it happened at Petty, Labonte’s tenure in the No. 96 did little, if anything, to bring HoF and Yates Racing back to their former selves. 2009 started fast, with Labonte leading at one point in the Daytona 500 and posting three top-20 finishes in the first six races (including a top five at Las Vegas). Yet since that quick sugar high to start the year, the No. 96 car posted only three more top 20s (none since the 600), and the team is now using both Labonte and Darnell to close out the 2009 campaign.
Now, with Atlanta in the rearview mirror, Labonte fans who spent all last week crying foul about HoF’s choice to release the veteran have something to crow about, as Bobby drove the No. 71 ride to its best result since Vegas in March in perhaps the most competitive outing in the team’s history. Clearly this veteran’s still got it. Clearly the No. 96 team wasn’t thinking when they went after Darnell and his sponsor dollars. Clearly they got what they had coming, and Bobby’s going to take to the next level what David Gilliland has spent all year building at TRG.
You know something? I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve drank this Kool-Aid before.
And something tells me that after a few races in the No. 71, that sugar high that the 2000 Cup winner brought to Petty Enterprises and to HoF will lead to another snoozer of a crash.