This weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway saw three of the most dominant drivers of today fighting for the win, yet away from the cameras, veteran driver Bobby Labonte was having one of his strongest runs in recent memory. Battling for the top 10 for the majority of the afternoon, it was only after Labonte pulled a 360-degree spin that he caught the attention of the broadcast booth.
Yet, with a new team and strong cars underneath him, Labonte appears to be more competitive than he has in the past few years, earning the attention where it matters most: behind the scenes and in the garage area. One of the most dominant drivers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the former series champion may be poised to turn his poor performances around.
After winning the series title in 2000, Labonte went on to have three more winning seasons, finishing sixth, 16th and eighth in points from 2001-2003. In 2004, he went winless for the first time since his rookie season of 1994. Little would he know that win in the season finale at Homestead in 2003 would be his last to date. With 21 Sprint Cup Series victories under his belt, Labonte is currently facing a 220-race winless streak.
It was that ’03 season that, in hindsight was the tail end of Labonte’s prime; the bottom seemed to fall out for him after that. That season, Labonte led 497 laps on his way to an eighth-place finish in the standings. In the time since, the former champ’s highest points finish was 12th the following year at Joe Gibbs Racing. He has also led only 214 laps from 2004-2011.
Winless in ’04, he would run his final season for JGR in ’05. In that final campaign, the No. 18 team scored only four top fives, seven top 10s and finished 24th in the standings thanks to 10 DNFs – it was without a doubt his worst performance in the Sprint Cup Series.
While hopes were high when he joined Petty Enterprises in 2006 to drive the famous No. 43, the three-year partnership produced only three top fives (all in 2006), 13 top 10s and a best points finish of 18th. Sponsorship woes and a lack of performance left Labonte on the move again in 2009 when he joined Hall of Fame Racing to pilot their No. 96 with new sponsor Ask.com.
Again, with high expectations, the combination lasted only one year and led to a 30th-place finish in the 2009 standings. Moving to TRG Motorsports for the 2010 season, things were only getting worse for the former champion. Splitting the season between TRG, Phoenix Racing, one race with Robby Gordon Motorsports and two from Stavola Labonte Racing, Labonte had his worst season on record – no top fives, no top 10s, 11 DNFs and a 31st finish in the points.
Then, when all hope seemed lost a break came when Marcos Ambrose announced he would move to Richard Petty Motorsports for the 2011 season. That opened the door at JTG Daugherty Racing, and the owners there thought Labonte was the most respected veteran out there willing to step into the seat. In their third season in the Cup Series, JTG Daugherty has the limited success of Ambrose (six top fives and 12 top 10s), the resources of Toyota on their side, and now they have a proven veteran behind the wheel.
“They have all of the necessary resources, along with the Toyota program and Michael Waltrip Racing technical alliance,” Labonte said at the beginning of the year. “You can see the progress growing with David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. week in and week out. I hope my experience will add to the program as I learn from those guys, too. I haven’t had that opportunity the past couple of years with teammates. All the tools are there, it’s just how you apply them. The stars are lining up and you’ve just got to make sure you do it right.”
The new pairing did it right in Daytona, pushing Trevor Bayne in the final laps and finishing third in the season opener. Like many others, Labonte was involved in the early-race wreck on the backstretch in Phoenix, but was able to rebound to a 21st-place finish. In Las Vegas, a slow stop caught the No. 47 Toyota a lap down and, despite putting himself in the free pass position late in the race, a caution never came out in time to allow the team to get on the lead lap.
This weekend in Bristol, however, the team showed its potential. While Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson battled for the win, Labonte fought throughout the day within the top 10. Although the coverage may not have noticed, it was clear the car was good and the driver behind the wheel still knew how to get the job done.
Working under Paul Menard for position late in the race, Labonte came up on Truex Jr. limping around with a flat tire. In order to avoid a larger wreck, Labonte locked up the brakes and spun his car without hitting anything else. Forced to pit and unable to work his way back through traffic, Labonte was scored 13th at the end of the day – passed by Mark Martin on the last lap.
“It was a good, strong run for us,” he said. “We beat a lot of good cars today. We got too tight there at the end. We just really didn’t get the car freed up enough. It was so hard to pass and track position meant so much.”
While the finish was not indicative of how well they ran throughout the race, it did move Labonte to 14th in the standings, just 35 points out of the lead.
Unlike many of the situations he has found himself in over the past seven years, Labonte has strong cars, good technology and a renewed drive on his side. Sunday’s results might not have shown Labonte is back on the road towards a championship run, but it did show the once-dominant driver still has what it takes to run up front.
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