The Decline and Fall of Bobby Labonte
Most racing champions don't go out in a blaze of glory. They're far more likely to go out in a haze of 35th place finishes in underfunded equipment. Valued primarily for their past champions provisional, they find work with teams looking to become the next NASCAR powerhouse. Few make it beyond start and park status; a sad end for proud men who once stood at the pinnacle of their sport. Thanks to a bicycle accident, Bobby Labonte will be out of the #47 car this weekend at Atlanta. With A.J. Allmendinger signed to replace him next year, Labonte may well be rapidly approaching a career that once held so much promise. While he started down this path a few years ago. It doesn't make watching his decline and fall any easier to take.
Unlike many of today's younger drivers, Labonte's climb to the Sprint Cup was neither fast nor smooth. He spent over a decade racing anything he could get behind the wheel of; from late models to Nationwide (then Busch) series cars, Labonte took his car to the track to compete. Having brother Terry running in the Sprint Cup may have helped but Bobby made his own way in stock car racing. He won a Nationwide title in 1991 and barely missed on repeating the following year (finishing second, just three points out of first). Bill Davis gave Labonte a shot in a full time Sprint Cup ride and Bobby responded with one top five and eight top ten finishes in two years.
Towards the end of 1994, former NFL coach Joe Gibbs needed a driver for his new NASCAR team and he tabbed Labonte. With his initial driver Dale Jarrett leaving for a decade-plus partnership with Yates Racing, Gibbs wanted a driver who could compete right now but was also young enough to be the face of the team for years to come. Labonte fit the bill and both he and the team took off; he won three races, scored 14 top ten finishes and landed tenth in the points that first year. Were it not for six DNFs due to crashes and engine failures, he may well have cracked the top five.
An old racing adage is that to win the race, first you have to finish the race. While Labonte wasn't known for being particularly aggressive on the track, he struggled to finish races early in his Sprint Cup career. His first four years saw him fail to finish 24 of 123 races. Many of the equipment failures were due to the growing pains associated with any new driver. But the sheer number of failures (and crashes) hinted that maybe Labonte was trying to get more from his equipment than it was capable of giving.
Whether it was better equipment or simple experience, Labonte's ability to finish improved. Between 1997 and 2000, Bobby cut his DNF rate from six per season to two. The change allowed Labonte to win races (12 during those four years) and steadily improve his position in the series standings. That improvement culminated in a dominant 2000 season that saw him win four races, score 24 top ten results while finishing all 34 races that season en route to a Sprint Cup title. He finished 265 points ahead of the next car and could have skipped the season finale at Atlanta entirely and still won the championship by nearly 100 points. Given the steady improvement over the prior four years there was little reason to think Labonte would not go on to be in the championship chase for years to come.
2000 Season in review (Labonte wins championship)
Yet the same thing that derailed his early Sprint Cup years reared its ugly head again the following year. He failed to finish six races and his average race finish fell from seventh to 14th. The drop in average finish also came in part due to less speed overall. His average start dropped six positions from the championship year (accounting for all but one position of his average finish change). 2002 saw Labonte enter competitive free fall as the team lost a full ten spots in the series standings all the way to 16th place. What's worse is that the drop wasn't a result of the equipment; teammate Tony Stewart won his first Sprint Cup title that same year. The DNF issue remained as the his #18 car failed to finish an average of five races per year between 2001 and 2003. That 2003 season featured not only his last Sprint Cup series win but also his last season with double-digit top five finishes.
The decline of Labonte at Gibbs accelerated over the next two years. For the first time since joining the team, 2004 saw him lead fewer than 50 laps during the season. He managed to cut back on the DNFs and finished all but two races but the team struggled to find speed. With no victories (also a first for Labonte while running the #18) and only 11 top ten finishes, Gibbs attempted to shake things up the following year by removing long time crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain and replacing him with a promising Gibbs Nationwide chief in Steve Addington.
The combination of Addington and Labonte failed miserably. Bobby failed to finish seven of the first 14 races in 2005 and ended the year with ten DNFs. Even when the car finished races the speed just wasn't there. His average finish of 22.7 was the worst Labonte had ever posted (at that point) in his full time Cup career as was his 24th place finish in the season standings. Meanwhile, Stewart was on his way to a second Cup championship driving essentially the same equipment. By the time the season drew to a close, both Labonte and team owner Gibbs were ready to part company.
Labonte moved over to run the iconic #43 for Petty Enterprises and expectations were high. Robbie Loomis, a veteran crew chief who'd won a title with Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, had returned to run the team. Labonte was a former champion himself and only three years removed from a top ten finish in points. But those expectations had little to do with the reality that Petty Enterprises had become. Longtime partner and sponsor STP was gone. The team had gone through a series of drivers over the prior decade and had only a single win (with John Andretti in 1998) to show for their efforts. The passing of Adam Petty, perceived heir to the Petty racing legacy, left a hole that the team still hadn't found a way to fill six years later.
Petty Enterprises was much like a status-conscious high society family whose scion left a mountain of bills behind. Reputation can only carry the burden for so long before everything comes crashing down. The crash came prior to the 2009 season as the team essentially went bankrupt and was absorbed into another financially strapped organization in Gilette Evernham Motorsports. GEM had no sponsorship and no place for Labonte and released the former champion even before the deal with Petty was complete.
Thanks to his past champions provisional, Labonte was a valuable asset to underfunded teams. As the prior champions ahead of him on the list were all in competitive rides, Labonte was virtually guaranteed a starting spot on the grid. Hall of Fame racing, a team his brother Terry once drove for, put Labonte in its car to start the season. Thanks to a series of ownership changes, Hall of Fame was a de facto Robert Yates Racing entry in 2009. The addition of Yates horsepower and Labonte's veteran savvy was expected to lift the team from its backmarker status. It didn't happen. The team had only one top five finish against seven DNFs and replaced Labonte before the season even ended (partly due to performance and partly due to a lack of sponsorship). He spent 2010 running for several different teams including TRG Motorsports, Phoenix Racing, and a team co-owned with brother Terry. With 11 DNFs against zero top ten finishes, Labonte's career seemed to be at an end.
Instead, JTG Daugherty Racing signed Labonte to be the team's full time driver for 2011. With a full season's worth of sponsorship on board and a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, Labonte's NASCAR career received an infusion of fresh air and there was every reason to hope that it would be the year that Bobby's fans had hoped for since the driver left Gibbs five years earlier. A fourth place finish in the Daytona 500 that year in his first race for the team only heightened those expectations.
Unfortunately those hope never came true. Since that race, Labonte has failed to score a single top five finish. He has a total of four top ten finishes in 94 races; he's led 12 laps while running over 25,000; despite finishing 84 of 94 races in the last three years, he's been on the lead lap only 31 times at race end. Worst of all, while his average finish is deep into the 20s, the team JTG is allied with in MWR has surged to become one of the best teams in NASCAR. The quality of equipment underneath him is better than any he's driven since winning a championship but the results remain far away. With A.J. Allmendinger joining the team full time next year Labonte will once again be out of a ride.
The silly season has not yet finished spinning for next year. It's entirely possible that yet another small team will find value in Labonte. He still has that past champions provisional. He still has a good amount of fan support and represents his sponsors well off the track. He has a wealth of experience than can benefit a younger team and driver, particularly at the restrictor plate tracks.
Yet he will be 50 years old next season and a decade past his last Sprint Cup victory. Despite his 21 Sprint Cup victories, his 2000 series championship and his 203 top ten finishes, the end is likely here for Labonte. While no career with those kinds of numbers is truly a disappointment, questions linger as to what happened after that 2003 season. Talent doesn't just disappear and he had plenty of it. Luck alone doesn't account for his results- results both good and bad over the years. Equipment doesn't account for the decline either; twice he watched a teammate take the Cup trophy while he finished outside the top 15. We may never know just what changed for Bobby, nor what he may have accomplished had it not occurred in the first place. That's the only certainty in the decline and fall of former Winston Cup champion, Bobby Labonte.