Despite recent struggles, Labonte still valuable

Pepsi 500 - QualifyingSitting in 31st in points has to be the pits for Bobby Labonte who is some 1000 plus points behind 13th place driver Matt Kenseth has been stuck in NASCAR purgatory the last four seasons.

A former series Champion, who has 21 career wins, and 114 Top 5’s over 577 career starts (including 575 consecutive) you’d be hard pressed to find a fan of the sport who doesn’t think Bobby Labonte is a good driver.

Perhaps a wreck back at Daytona in 2006 was a bad omen for Labonte who asked for his release from Gibbs racing following a disappointing 2005 season. He had spent the last 11 years of his career with the team dating back to the beginning of 1995. While a member of Gibbs racing he picked up his first career victory in the Coca-Cola 600 and after finishing second in the 1999 points captured the Winston Cup in 2000 ahead of a guy named Dale Earnhardt.

Here’s the problem since his departue from Joe Gibbs racing at the end of 2005 Labonte hasn’t been a very good driver stat wise. Labonte’s last win came at the final race of the 2003 season, back when it was still called the Winston Cup Series. Over the next two seasons Labonte totaled 5 then 4 top 5’s.

In the four seasons since his depature from the green and black #18 he has a total of 4 Top 5’s in 106 races. His lone Top 5 this year came in the season’s third race at Las Vegas.

Obviously when you have made 575 consecutive starts you’re experienced at every track on the circuit and you don’t have to look too hard at any tracks leader board to see Bobby Labonte sprinkled across it with wins, strong finishes or both.

The problem is when Labonte joined Petty Enterprises it was already in the dumpster. No matter how good Bobby Labonte could have been would have changed much he simply wasn’t going to be competitive and the team was going nowhere. Even if you take a look at the merged team of Richard Petty Motorsports today you’ll notice that their only successful car (Kasey Kahne in the 9) wasn’t fielded by the organization last year.

When Petty Enterprises was ready to merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports they opted to dump Labonte leaving the former champ with few viable options for the 2009 season. Originally it had been rumored Labonte could head over to Richard Childress Racing in the 07 car with General Mills as sponorship but Casey Mears was introduced as the driver of that car back in August of 2008 prior to Labonte being dumped.

Whatever the reasons were for the above Labonte signed with Hall of Fame Racing for 2009 with his cars to be fielded by Yates Racing. Needless to say things haven’t went well for any party involved to the point where Yates opted to remove Labonte from driving the seven races in which (the primary sponsor) was not on the car. Labonte has filled in the 71 TRG machine in those weekends.

One thing is simple: Labonte will not be back with Hall of Fame Racing, which has been rumored to be possibly partnering with Penske or Childress Racing in 2010.

So where does Bobby Labonte go for 2010? It’s unclear.

Back in August commented that they were still interested in sponsoring Labonte for the 2010 season as has Academy Outdoor & Sport stores. So wherever he goes he carries not only only a champions provisional but also sponsorship dollars.

New reports suggest he’ll drive a second car for TRG which really seems like a step sideways for a driver of Labonte’s statue.

Some suggest he could still end up in the 07 car for RCR, others mention the 1 car as an open ride which could be his.

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