In a surprise Silly Season move this week, Marcos Ambrose announced that he will leave JTG Daugherty Racing at the end of the season. While Ambrose hasn’t announced any future plans yet (the rumor mill has him moving to the No. 9 being vacated by Kasey Kahne), JTG Daugherty Racing spared no time in naming Bobby Labonte to replace Ambrose in the No. 47 next year.
It’s a welcome decision in a sport which seems to have forgotten so many of its veterans in the past decade. Labonte is certainly a good choice for the team; he’s a veteran racer with more than 600 Sprint Cup Series starts and is one of only a handful of active drivers who can claim the title of champion. Labonte’s 2000 title also marked the first time that a former Nationwide Series champ also won a Cup title, and the first time that brothers have both won the sport’s highest honor (older brother Terry Labonte is the 1984 and 1996 champion). Labonte can also boast 21 career wins and an average finish well inside the top 20. He’s no slouch behind the wheel, despite spending several seasons driving for underfunded teams without competitive equipment.
Labonte may have found his last best chance at JTG-Daugherty; at 46 he’s no longer the youngster he was when he entered the Cup Series in 1993, competing for top rookie honors with Jeff Gordon. But that doesn’t mean he can’t drive… drivers in their mid-40s have been successful for decades in NASCAR, and Mark Martin made a strong championship bid last year at the age of 50. Labonte could be just the ticket to take the team to the next level. They’ve grabbed a few top-five finishes with a best of second, but Labonte should bring a new consistency to the team. Plus, with their technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, a team on the rise, better days could well be ahead for both team and driver.
Labonte has driven the last two years for badly underfunded TRG Motorsports, finally handing in his resignation when the team decided to start and park-something the racer in Labonte just couldn’t bring himself to do. (Labonte will run four races for the team this fall.) The move to JTG is mutually beneficial-Labonte gets one more shot at being fairly competitive, and his skill should help the team move ahead.
But such win-win situations are becoming a rarity in today’s NASCAR as sponsors care less and less about on-track performance and more and more about a driver’s “marketability” in other areas. Read: he looks good on TV.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on an individual basis, but it also changes the sport. It used to be that big wins about guaranteed a ride for life-even if they lacked the talent of a driver like Bobby Labonte. A champion’s title was a driver’s ticket to a ride.
Now, that’s not the case. Labonte left Joe Gibbs Racing for Petty Enterprises, turning down a ride with Richard Childress to stay with the Petty family. But when the team was sold, he found himself not part of the business plan. Hoping to grow with TRG, Labonte moved there last year, but never found the level of success he hoped for.
Labonte is one of the lucky ones. Many veteran racers are overlooked-relegated to backmarker cars without adequate sponsorship-and these are drivers who have won races and had solid points finishes. It’s at it’s worst in the Nationwide Series, where drivers like Jason Keller and Kenny Wallace, who sit 1-2 in career starts for that series, struggle each week for a top-25 finish. Not too long ago, there was a time when both were winning races, finishing in the top 10 in points like clockwork, and representing their sponsors well.
Both have runner-up points finishes-Wallace’s was to Labonte and Keller’s to Jeff Green, who was slated to move to Cup, making Keller the heir apparent. Wallace is also a three-time Most Popular Driver. That’s the most anyone has won that honor in that series.
These are drivers who deserve better.
Once upon a time, the ability to race a car up front was what guaranteed a sponsor-and there are plenty of drivers out there in the Nationwide and Cup series who could do just that if the sponsor money, and by default, the equipment were there. Keller and Wallace are probably the most visible of them in the Nationwide Series, and Cup drivers who are getting shuffled aside for youth and beauty include Labonte, Dave Blaney, even Jeff Burton is facing a sponsor search when Caterpillar’s contract runs out. Despite his runner-up points finish last year, Martin will be replaced at Hendrick Motorsports by Kahne in 2012.
Teams wanting younger drivers is understandable. Reflexes slow with age and owners need to have young talent to build toward the future. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t mean there is no place for the veterans in the sport, especially as drivers come in at a younger age.
One of the most fun races I have ever watched was an ARCA race at Rockingham a couple of years ago. Joey Logano, not yet old enough for his Nationwide debut, clearly had the fastest car in the field that day, and he held it to a flawless line all day long, low in the groove. The only driver with anything for him was veteran Ken Schrader, who has four wins and numerous top-10 points finishes in his respectable Cup career. At one point, Schrader took over the lead, and with that took Logano to school.
Taking away the line Logano had been running, lap after lap, Schrader forced the young phenom to think, to really race, for the first time that day. Though his car was clearly faster, Logano couldn’t get by Schrader for many laps, and when he did he had most certainly earned it. Logano went on to win after Schrader had pitted earlier than Logano for tires on the abrasive Rockingham asphalt. It was a joy to watch because there was nothing dirty about it… Schrader didn’t block Logano, didn’t intimidate him… he simply took away his line and made him a better racer that day.
Surely there is a place for the Labontes, Burtons, Martins and even Schraders of the world. Surely the Kellers and the Wallaces have a valuable role in NASCAR. It would behoove team owners and sponsors to realize that. In fact, they should covet it. Nothing replaces experience in this sport; nothing can. The lessons the up-and-comers can learn from them are lessons than can make them future winners and champions. Some of those lessons can’t come from the veterans telling them what to do. They need to show them, in a racecar, on the track. And, as Martin has shown when given equal equipment to the whippersnappers, they can still teach them one more lesson… how to lose.
JTG Daugherty could have chosen a young driver, like MWR’s Nationwide driver Trevor Bayne. Instead they made a move that more teams in the Cup and Nationwide Series should consider, putting a driver in the seat who understands how to give feedback and how to race on any track, any time. Drivers like Labonte deserve to end their careers when they choose, not when the sponsor says they’re done. It might not be with a top team, but it’s respectable.
Someone will pick up Martin and Burton, most likely, and hopefully it will be by a team like JTG Daugherty, one that needs to grow, because that’s what a veteran driver can bring to a newer team. For Keller and Wallace, things look bleaker; the Nationwide Series teams and sponsors seem to have little use even for the drivers who, by virtue of experience, know the series better than anyone. They deserve better.
The teams who do take a chance on Martin, and Burton should sponsor woes force him out at RCR, have a golden opportunity, especially if they have a young driver as well. The end of the road shouldn’t be a start-and-park effort, it should be a team that needs a competitive and experienced driver. And along the way, the young drivers learn.