_Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question… feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!_
*This Week’s Question: Should Terry Labonte, or other drivers, be penalized for start-and-parking in a non-points race?*
_Who’s right? You decide!_
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: Texas Terry Took The Fan Base For A Ride… And Should Pay The Price
What’s the best way to make $15,700 a minute? The answer, I found out Saturday night is simple: qualify for a sport’s All-Star event, make the equivalent of a token appearance and then quit, fleecing the very people who came to see you compete.
That description fits Terry Labonte’s latest line of work, parking the No. 32 FAS Lane Ford with “vibration” issues after just two laps before collecting a check and zipping over to the bank long before Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited had completed. One of the sport’s all-time greats should be embarrassed, a two-time series champion who’s been reduced to moonlighting for a little extra cash. But in this case, his actions went too far, a new level of start-and-parking that made even supporters of the practice cringe. Clearly, NASCAR needs to take action, taking back the purse money to protect its integrity before this issue gets any worse.
I’m not saying retired athletes should be shut out of the moneymaking process altogether. There are definitely ways to do it, from paid autograph sessions, to public speaking engagements for a fee and even television broadcasting. But notice none of those choices included participating in a professional athletic event. In stick ‘n’ ball sports, it’s a moot point because physical ability deteriorates to the point where pitching a ball, making a tackle or slamming someone into the boards in hockey has become borderline impossible. Old-timer’s games, even for Hall of Famers is often their solitary option.
But in stock car racing, that’s not always the case, especially at a track like Daytona where “wide open” is the name of the game. A driver like Labonte can abuse this type of All-Star event, specifically designed to showcase the sport’s best and, in theory, most popular wheelmen. Fans paid top dollar for tickets Saturday night to see anyone from the sport’s five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, to old legends like Mark Martin duke it out based on recent or all-time accomplishments. Unlike a 43-car field, there’s just 19 quality entries so anyone pulling in early diminishes the product more deeply than, say, a start-and-park within a normal race.
Some of those fans, seeing Labonte on the entry list may have come specifically to see their former flame one last time. The fact that he was running for an underfunded team was irrelevant; the draft, combined with restrictor plates can make anyone Superman at Daytona these days under the right circumstances. For all we know, with the six-car wreck triggered by Tony Stewart’s miscue Labonte could have finished inside the top 10 or even better. Instead, the only racing he and FAS Lane were interested in was how quickly that check could get in the bank.
The excuses run the gambit here, from trying to preserve the teams’ primary car, during a time when parts for NASCAR’s Gen-6 are borderline out of stock, to simply needing the money for survival. But even if you’re on a different side of S&P, where you feel like it’s not only necessary but also essential to keep teams afloat, this one should leave a bit of a different taste. Their financial situation, or number of cars are irrelevant in that the goal of any event like this one is to compete. If you can’t do that… there’s a choice not to enter. There were no owner points to be gained here, no sponsors to “woo” by entering the event. Labonte actually has a primary backer, for all four of his races with the team in C&J Energy Services. And if they’re still collecting cash for survival, well, why should this underdog have an edge over others, like NEMCO Motorsports who sit in a similar spot? The key to keeping your team alive shouldn’t be “hire a former Cup champion as cheaply as possible, just so your car gets eligible for the race and then he can pull in early for a cool 30K.” Even under the best intentions, driving for a FAS Lane organization that typically doesn’t cut their races short it stinks of gaming the system.
And that’s not what Saturday night was all about. The sole reason the Sprint Unlimited exists, as evidenced by “the people” choosing everything from the race distance to the color of Miss Sprint Cup’s firesuit, is for the fans’ enjoyment. Ask any of them, then, whether seeing a car run slowly, then pull into the pits after two laps intentionally to collect some cash was worth their hard-earned money to sit in the stands – or even their time in front of the television.
The answer, in almost all cases is going to be a flat-out “no.” And what they’ll realize, in the process is that an aging driver bribed them, right under their nose and didn’t even leave them with an autograph to show for it. So while the practice is bound to be limited – there’s only so many aging former champions who can pull this stunt – NASCAR needs to say a resounding “yes” to penalties so these competitions aren’t tainted any further.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: You Can’t Penalize a Team For Not Having Unlimited Resources
After everything we saw in the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night, you’re worried about one team who pulled to the garage early to avoid a wrecked racecar? Sorry, but I just don’t think that was even an issue; between Tony Stewart’s harebrained move in the first segment that took out six cars and the lack of racing for the rest of the night, the fact that Terry Labonte pulled in early was barely a blip on the radar.
I could be wrong here, but I believe that Labonte was one of a handful of drivers who was racing in the Unlimited with his Daytona 500 backup car. And unlike Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, it’s unlikely that FAS Lane Racing can just call the shop back in Charlotte and order up another racecar if that one got destroyed (which it very well could have). FAS Lane simply doesn’t have the resources of Roush Fenway or Richard Childress Racing at its fingertips; what the big teams (and their fans) take for granted, the small ones simply can’t afford.
Should new owners just not bother to enter the sport anymore? Because realistically, that’s what this issue boils down to — many of the upstarts resort to starting and parking because that’s the only way they can get on the track at all, and on the track is where they need to be to have any hope of attracting sponsorship so they can race full-time in the future. I hate to break it to you, but that’s reality in today’s NASCAR. Do people criticize a mom and pop grocery store for keeping shorter hours than Walmart just to stay open? No, we cheer their effort in the face of big money adversity and go out of our way to support them. They’re the American Dream, right?
Yes, there are a couple of owners who use start-and-park as a business model, with no apparent plans to change that. Shame on them, because they _are_ making a mockery of the sport. But it’s unlikely that Phil Parsons’ team is capable of putting a car on the pole, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be doing it in the Unlimited anytime soon. We’re not talking about that; we’re talking about a team dedicated to improvement.
FAS Lane wasn’t a start-and-park team on Sundays in 2012; they went the distance whenever possible, and I’m sure they were looking ahead to the Daytona 500, which is a much more important race in the scheme of things, and trying not to destroy their equipment before they get there. They qualified for the Unlimited under the current rules, and their entry was totally legit — both Labonte and Ken Schrader, who was also eligible, drive for the team in the regular season, so it’s not like they fielded a car for one of them as a one-off. Last-place money in the Unlimited might help pay the tire bill for the 500, and this team will try to go the distance on Sunday, when it matters.
It’s all about the big picture here. In the big picture, the fact that Terry Labonte went to the garage early was hardly the biggest problem with the Sprint Unlimited. In the big picture, the long-term success of a small team might mean doing some things that they don’t like (believe me, no driver worth his seat belt is happy about pulling in early) because the big teams and sponsors have driven the price of competition impossibly high. (People complain about the Hendricks, Roushes, and Childresses, but if these independent teams people are so quick to malign weren’t there, they’re all that would be left!) Unfortunately, these days the small teams struggle just to get a tiny crumb of the pie. And in the big picture, FAS Lane doesn’t have cars to spare when drivers who have no such worries are having too much fun to use common sense.
No, NASCAR shouldn’t have stopped FAS Lane from starting the Sprint Unlimited. They’re an underfunded, upstart team, but they qualified under the rules. Whatever happened to the American Dream, anyway?