No. 27: Bobby Labonte

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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown

2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown

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Bobby Labonte and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team slot in at No. 27 on Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 47 Little Debbie/Clorox
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
Owner: Tad & Jody Geschickter/Brad Daugherty
Crew Chief: Frank Kerr

Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 1st (2000)

Hometown: Corpus Christi, Texas
Born: May 8, 1964

2011 Spin
Things haven’t quite worked out as planned for 2000 Cup Series Champion Bobby Labonte since he left a cushy gig at Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2005 season. But after a five-year journey that seemed destined to end in disaster, a miracle lifeline came in the form of a top-20 race team that could salvage his career. When Marcos Ambrose surprised JTG Daugherty Racing by breaking contract last season, owner Brad Daugherty wasted no time in scooping up the 46-year-old as a replacement for 2011. It was announced in July that Labonte would take the reins, a bold move that has both driver and team hopeful.

“The team is thriving, and their technical alliance with MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) is intact,” Labonte said. “We have all the right ingredients to win races together.”

It’s a chance at redemption most thought would never happen. After spending time trying to help rebuild Petty Enterprises, Labonte was squeezed out following the 2008 season. Loyalty was rewarded with a pink slip and the loss of the two things all fortysomething drivers crave — speed and stability.

Labonte has drifted from one low-budget team to another ever since, his past champion’s provisional helping secure rides. In 2010, he spent six months with single-car TRG Motorsports, scoring no finish higher than 21st in 16 starts while recording four DNFs. In June, they parted ways, and he raced once for Robby Gordon before bouncing between Phoenix Racing, TRG and Stavola Labonte Racing (co-owned by brother Terry). He even started-and-parked several times, keeping his name out there but building a perception amongst insiders he was only still driving to collect a check.

Looks like we’re about to find out if that’s accurate. JTG Daugherty, crew chief Frank Kerr, and the majority of a team that three years ago finished a solid 18th in points remain intact and sponsorship is solid. All the pieces are in place for Labonte to jump in and succeed.

How quickly will be the question, considering this driver has just one top 5 in the last four seasons. Granted, that has a lot to do with the equipment, but how much the veteran truly has left in the tank is a total unknown. The stats say “not much,” but for Labonte there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Is the 2000 Winston Cup champion all washed up? “You always hear people say, ‘Well, he didn’t forget how to drive,’ but in this sport, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” says a crew chief. “Bobby Labonte is a champion, but it’s been more than a decade now, and Bobby just went down that slippery slope where he got himself trapped in cars that weren’t competitive. He’s got a shot at a comeback, but we don’t know yet how good a shot it’s going to be.”

Adds another: “Sometimes when a driver gets used to just staying out of trouble, he can’t get that aggressiveness back.”

“I wouldn’t count him out,” says an owner, “but it would be quite a comeback. Age-wise (46), he ought to have a few good years left in him.”

2010 Stats
Starts:
36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 0
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 8
Laps Completed: 8,584
Lead Lap Finishes: 8
Bonus Points: 15
Races Led: 3
Average Start: 31.7
Average Finish: 30.6
After First 26 Races: 31st
Final Points Standing: 31st
Driver Rating: 45.9 (32nd)