Over the course of the last 704 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte have each taken the green flag for all of them. This weekend in Kentucky only one of them will have that opportunity.
For the first time since the 1992 season ending race in Atlanta, Labonte will not be behind the wheel of a race car for a NASCAR sanctioned event. With the recent developments, it is fair to wonder if 2013 will be the last season of his storied career.
Labonte has had a lengthy and successful career in NASCAR's premier division. He is a 21-time race winner, 26-time pole winner and was the 2000 series champion. But there has been little success in the last 10 years.
Labonte spent his first two full-time seasons driving for Bill Davis. He had minimal success, notching eight top-10's, and a single top-five finish. Then in 1995 he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing. Driving the No.18 Interstate Batteries car through the 2005 season, Labonte became one of the top drivers in the sport.
All 21 of his career victories came while driving for Coach Gibbs. During his 11 years with the team, Labonte tallied 176 top-10 finishes. 111 of those resulted in a top-five.
The next three seasons saw Labonte driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, where he drove The King's famed No. 43 car. Results were average at best. During that time, he amassed just 13 top-10 finishes and peaked at 18th in the year end standings.
For the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Labonte was forced to drive for single-car teams, that were running on limited funds.
That led to 2011 when he signed with JTG-Daugherty Racing, driving their No. 47 Toyota. Marcos Ambrose had shown the year prior that this single-car team had a lot of potential, and could compete for race wins. With a former series champion behind the wheel, expectations were high.
"He will do an outstanding job representing our products and team," said team co-owner Brad Daugherty during the announcement of Labonte's signing. He added in regards to his new driver, "he is highly experienced with a championship on his resume and we know he is capable of winning."
Labonte also had high expectations. During the same announcement, he said "everything is in place and we have all the right ingredients to win races together."
Labonte posted a fourth-place finish in the 2011 Daytona 500, his first race with the team. 87 races later, he has failed to score another top-five, and added only three more top-10 finishes.
The lack of results has force the team to turn to AJ Allmendinger for help. He is scheduled to run five races in the No. 47 to try and help diagnose what the performance problems may be.
Two weeks ago at Michigan was Allmendinger's first race with the team. Labonte was able to land a ride with James Finch in his No. 51 car. Five laps into the event, Labonte lost control of his car and crashed. This ended his day in 43rd place. Allmendinger, meanwhile finished 19th, the second-best result of the year for JTG Racing.
Allmendinger is set to drive the car again this weekend, while Austin Dillon will be behind the wheel of the No. 51. That leaves Labonte without a ride.
He is scheduled to return to the No. 47 next week in Daytona, and will run most of the rest of the season with the team. But Labonte is in the final year of his contract. While no announcement has been made, one can't help but wonder what his options will be going forward.
If this is the beginning of the end for Labonte it would certainly be bittersweet. While you have to tip your hat to all that he has accomplished, it has been tough watching him struggle for the last decade.
Labonte is one of the true gentlemen of the sport, so even if he doesn't have an opportunity to drive a race car next season, we can only hope that he finds a way to stay involved with the sport that he conquered back in 2000.
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