What’s old is new again — or so Bobby Labonte hopes. With Mark Martin scaling back, the series’ oldest remaining full-time driver will go searching for that Sprint Cup Fountain of Youth. After floundering with low-budget, start-and-park efforts in 2010, the 47-year-old Labonte joined forces with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2011 hoping to return to some semblance of his earlier success. While the results weren’t too impressive, he did manage to score one top-5 finish and two top-10 results in the No. 47 Toyota, giving the 2000 Sprint Cup champion hope for the future. His average finish (a modest 24.8) and overall finish in the final standings (29th) were his best since driving for Petty Enterprises in 2008.
“I like the plan that this team has in place, and I have always enjoyed the challenge of building up a team,” Labonte says. “We have some people with proven success coming to work with us, and we plan to capitalize on that.”
The top-level addition that should make the biggest impact this year is crew chief Todd Berrier, who was released from Richard Childress Racing after 17 years with the company. Working with drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, he’s accumulated four Chase appearances and eight victories while achieving the type of consistency this single-car operation could only dream of.
That’s just one change of many made over the offseason, as JTG diligently works on becoming a program that can contend for a handful of top 10s and perhaps steal a victory given an ideal set of circumstances. Still aligned with Michael Waltrip Racing, where it has received engines and chassis, the team is taking a risk by moving back to its “home base” in Harrisburg, N.C., to build for the future. With Berrier also installed as general manager, the team has brought on Laerte Zetta from Toyota Racing Development to serve as director of engineering while former head wrench Frank Kerr moves to shop foreman. Financial security gives the company that option: Kingsford Charcoal is returning for its 15th season with the team, and Bush’s Baked Beans is back for year number 10, while Kimberly-Clark remains among a handful of smaller companies playing their part to keep this single-car team on the track.
The bigger question is this: After eight seasons without a victory and leading only 218 laps during that span, can Labonte recapture some old magic? Team owners Tad Geschickter and Brad Daugherty have brought in big names behind the scenes; now, in his second season behind the wheel at JTG, Labonte must show improvement to keep the blame for repeated failures from shifting toward the driver.
What the Competition is Saying
The former series champion has not made a mark on the sport in quite some time. Once a formidable force in the series, Labonte has not been competitive in nearly a decade, scoring only two top-five finishes in the past five seasons. In the twilight of his career, how long will Labonte run around in a less-than-competitive ride?
“Why is this guy even still racing? He doesn’t act like he even wants to be there most weeks, and is no longer competitive,” one insider observes.
Another notes some career choices haven’t served him well. “He left Gibbs to rejuvinate Petty Enterprises, and when it wasn’t working, he stayed too long. The Hall of Fame and TRG rides were jokes ... I just don’t see him turning things around at JTG, either.”
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 2
Laps Led: 6
Laps Completed: 10,228
Lead Lap Finishes: 12
Bonus Points: 4
Races Led: 4
Average Start: 22.4
Average Finish: 24.8
After First 26 Races: 29th
Final Points Standing: 29th
Driver Rating: 58.8 (29th)