NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Bobby Labonte

Bobby Labonte

2011 Ride: No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Toyota
2011 Primary Sponsors: Kroger, Clorox, Bush’s Baked Beans, Kingsford, Lance Snacks
2011 Owners: Brad Daugherty, Tad Geschickter
2011 Crew Chiefs: Frank Kerr (February – October), Brian Burns (Final four races following Talladega suspension)
2011 Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 29th in points

High Point: The season-opening Daytona 500 saw Labonte in contention to win, as he was right on eventual winner Trevor Bayne’s bumper coming off the final turn before coming home in fourth. That was his best Daytona 500 finish since finishing runner up to Dale Earnhardt in 1998, but it also marked a return to a finishing position the 2000 champ hasn’t seen recently – it was his first top-five result since Las Vegas of 2009 and his best finish in over four years, when he finished third at Martinsville in 2006.

Low Point: Following Daytona, Labonte’s season took a downward spiral, and he was only able to snag one more top 10 all year. It’s hard to look at one specific race as a low point as he had nine finishes of 30th or worse. However, if there was one race where the results didn’t meet the expectations, look no further than the fall race at Talladega. Given that he had nearly won the biggest race of the season eight months earlier, the two-by-two style of drafting was seemingly Labonte’s only, and last, chance to win in 2011.

He was in contention late in the going, jostling for position up front only to be taken out by Michael Waltrip with 13 laps remaining. It was a hard wreck, and while not seriously hurt, the 35th-place finish was symbolic of Labonte’s entire season, a year that failed to make expectations. To make matters worse, the team’s windshield was confiscated two days earlier for being too thin. NASCAR gave the JTG-Daughtery organization a stiff penalty, with a loss of 25 driver and owner points along with the suspension of crew chief Frank Kerr.

Summary: This year was supposed to be somewhat of revival for Labonte; after bottoming out last season in underfunded equipment, he even had to start-and-park for a few races. His determination to fight back, along with the occasional strong efforts Marcos Ambrose had posted for JTG in the previous couple of seasons, combined to make most think Labonte could have one of his best campaigns in years. Unfortunately, 2011 was more of the same, with just two top-10s and only six laps led for a driver who’s running like he’s long past his prime.

Team Ranking: First. A single-car team, JTG-Daugherty received support in the form of chassis and engines from multi-car giant Michael Waltrip Racing – just not their modest success rate. Of full-time drivers who started every race, only David Gilliland had a lower points ranking than Labonte’s 29th by the time the checkers flew at Homestead. Ironically enough, both drivers were top five in points after the first race in Daytona. To further show the downslide to Labonte’s career, this marked the third straight year he has finished 29th or worse in points. In his previous 16 years of full-time Sprint Cup competition, he had never finished outside the top 25 in the final standings.

2012 Outlook: JTG-Daugherty Racing moved into their own shop in Harrisburg, meaning it’s likely going to be even tougher for Labonte next year as they build a foundation outside of Michael Waltrip Racing. However, the organization will still receive MWR engines and chassis, adding new crew chief and former RCR employee Todd Berrier in a move to provide the veteran with an A-level mechanic on the pit box.

But will it be enough? While single-car teams had some success this year, it is still advantageous to be a multi-car group and Labonte hasn’t shown signs of life independently in years. With the still relatively new team on their own for 2012, don’t expect to see the Labonte and the No. 47 group make any improvements from this year.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B-
2007 Grade: C
2008 Grade: C-
2009 Grade: B-
2010 Grade: F
2011 Grade: D

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