Bobby Labonte’s Career Is One of Trials, Triumphs and Raw DealsBy Nick DeGroot
Bobby Labonte made his 700th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) start at Talladega Superspeedway this past Sunday leading laps under green before being swept up in a late race wreck finishing 20th. Today is the champ’s 49th birthday and I thought a good way to celebrate it would be to remember all of his great NASCAR accomplishments. His Cup debut came back in 1991 driving the No.14 Slim Jim Oldsmobile for his father, Bob Labonte at Dover. He finished 34th after starting 33rd. He won the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) title that year and just about won it again in 1992 losing by 3 points to Joe Nemechek.
His big break came in 1993 getting a ride with Bill Davis Racing in the No.22. He finished a respectable 19th in the standings with a best finish of 7th and a pole at Richmond. In 1994, he had a career best result of 5th at Michigan and finished the season 21st in points. With Dale Jarrett leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby got a chance to pilot the No.18 in 1995. It was a match made in heaven and the true potential of Bobby Labonte was about to be witnessed. He won the Coke 600 and swept the Michigan races in route to a solid 10th place points finish leading nearly 300 laps and turning a lot of heads. People realized very quickly that this guy was the real deal as the success continued into 1996 and beyond.
Bobby had a decent season in ’96 but failed to win a race until the final event of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His older brother Terry was trying to win the championship while Bobby starting on pole for the event. In one of the more memorable moments in NASCAR history, Bobby crossed the line winning his 4th NSCS race while Terry finished 5th winning his second championship. The two celebrated together and the family was ecstatic. A few years later, it was Bobby’s turn to hoist the hardware.
After winning 5 races and finishing runner-up to Dale Jarrett in 1999, Bobby was determined to win the Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) title. He won 4 more races in 2000 including the highly sought after Brickyard 400 trophy. He battled fiercely with 1989 NSCS champion Rusty Wallace for the victory and finally made his way by with 14 laps remaining. Bobby went on to win the title by a massive margin of 265 points over arguably the greatest stock car driver that ever lived, Dale Earnhardt. He was unable to defend his title in 2001 and what he is most remembered for that year has to be his scary crash at Talladega. Bobby was trying to work the high lane battling for the win with Dale Jr. on the final lap when Bobby Hamilton attempted to make a move underneath the No.18. The Bobby’s made contact and Labonte was sent over on his lid while 20 other cars piled into the massive wreck.
Labonte was unharmed thankfully and soldiered on to a 6th place finish in the standings and winning the IROC title. 2002 was a tough year for the champ; in fact it was his worst showing since 1994 when he was with Davis. Although he won a race at Martinsville, he only managed to get a 16th place points finish posting just 7 top 10′s. 2003 was better for him making his way back into the top 10 in the standings (8th) and winning two more races. The 2003 finale at Homestead was a significant one for NASCAR being the final Winston Cup sponsored race. Bill Elliott looked to have it in the bag until a flat tire with half a lap to go handed the victory to Bobby Labonte. Bobby had now won at least 1 race every year for the past 9 which is obviously an impressive feat.
Unfortunately, we are nearing the 10 year anniversary of that win and Bobby has yet to visit victory lane since. He has come so close so many times but win number 22 eludes him. In 2004, Jimmie Johnson narrowly beat him off pit road at Darlington and even though he had a faster car, Labonte was unable to get around the No.48 who won the race. He also finished 2nd to Rusty Wallace that year at Martinsville on his way to a 12th place finish in the standings. 2005 ended up being the worst of Bobby’s career up to that point finishing 24th in the standings while his teammate Tony Stewart won the championship.
On a very strange night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2005, Bobby almost won the Coke 600. It happened to be the 10 year anniversary of Bobby’s first ever NSCS win at that very track almost to the very day. The race had a record 22 cautions and went past midnight. Tempers flared between multiple drivers and big wrecks were the story until Joe Nemechek found himself leading with 10 to go. Suddenly, he crashed and Jimmie Johnson narrowly avoided him as he came back down the track. Bobby Labonte was now leading the race driving the FedEx paint scheme because Jason Leffler who was supposed to have that sponsor missed the race. The FOX commentators talked to Bobby under caution and you could tell that the tension was high and he was anxious to get going. The race became a 5 lap knock-down drag-out fight to the finish between Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson who had much fresher tires and much faster car. Bobby held him off even when JJ made a move to the inside on the final lap. They drove off into turn 3 and it seemed Bobby might win until Johnson got alongside him running the high line. It was a drag race to the line and in a spectacular photo finish, Jimmie Johnson defeated Labonte by .027 hundredths. In frustration, Bobby kicked the side of his car knowing that he might never get a chance like that again.
At the conclusion of 2005, he left Gibbs and joined the legendary Petty Enterprises team trying to bring them back to their former glory. He almost did nearly winning Martinsville in a thrilling late race battle between Hamlin, Labonte and Johnson. He gave the team its best points finish in 7 years finishing 21st and improving to 18th in 2007. In 2008, Bobby signed a 4 year extension with Petty and this is the part where I start talking about raw deals. Right before Christmas, he was released from the team and they merged with Gillet-Evernham. A former champion of our sport who poured his heart and soul into that No.43 team sat there ride-less. Fortunately, he got a car in late January driving for Hall Of Fame Racing which teamed up with Yates. At Las Vegas, the car was blistering fast and Bobby battled for the lead with Kyle Busch late in the race. The caution flew, pit stops were made and bad luck bit Bobby once again. He was blocked in his pit stall costing him multiple spots forcing him to restart around 8th or 9th. He drove through the field and was actually 2 tenths quicker than race winner Kyle Busch on the final lap in traffic but he ran out of time finishing 5th.
Victory had been in Labonte’s reach yet again before slipping through his fingers at the last second. Later that year, he got screwed (for lack of a better term) by his team when they replaced him mid-season with Erik Darnell who brought sponsorship. Bobby ran for TRG finishing 10th at Talladega; the best finish ever for that team. In 2010, he joined them full-time and ran the 24 Hours of Daytona nearly winning that historic race before the car ran out of fuel 3 laps ahead of the 2nd place car costing them the win. May 16th, 2010 was a sad day for Bobby Labonte fans everywhere when he pulled into the garage on lap 65 at Dover International Speedway. He didn’t have a mechanical issue, he was start and parking. A former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and IROC champion was parking his car early in a race for a $75,000 pay day. He left the team soon after and drove for many different teams the remainder of the year. The teams included Robby Gordon, Phoenix Racing and Stavola-Labonte Racing which was c0-owned by his older brother. It was the first time he ever went a season without a top 10 with a best finish of 16th.
In 2011, he joined JTG-Daugherty Racing where he remains to this day. In his very first race with them, he had another chance at victory lane. It wasn’t the Coke 600, Martinsville, Darlington or Las Vegas though…..it was the 53rd running of the Daytona 500. He shoved rookie Trevor Bayne far out in front of the field with half a lap to go but as he got ready to make his move to try to steal the win, the Fords of Carl Edwards and David Gilliland crashed the party pushing Bobby back to 4th as they raced to the line. He was visibly disappointed following the race after watching yet another win pass him by. In 2012, he had his best season in 4 years finishing 23rd in the standings. So far in 2013, Bobby has led 5 laps and posted a best finish of 15th at the Daytona 500.
From hoisting the championship trophy in three different series to start and parking, Bobby Labonte’s career has been full of many ups and downs. He has fought through all the adversity though and continues to race on hoping to one day win that 22nd NSCS race. There is a contingent of people out that that feel the need to criticize Bobby saying that he’s washed up and needs to retire but let me tell you how ignorant that statement really is. Since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby has given teams such as Hall of Fame Racing, Petty Enterprises, TRG and JTG some of the best runs of their existence or in quite some time. If you put him in a top tier ride, he will perform. Champions don’t forget how to drive a racecar and this champion could be a contender again in faster equipment. He seems content though using his experience to try to help JTG build their program and there is nothing wrong with that. He is a great person and has proven that he belongs in NASCAR and should be allowed to race for as long as he pleases without anyone judging him or telling him what to do. NASCAR needs more drivers like Bobby Labonte and he deserves respect for what his done; not criticism. Lastly, I’d like to say congrats on your 700th start Bobby and good luck in final 26 races of 2013!