Is Bobby Labonte Truly at the Twilight of His Storied Career?

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 25, 2009

LOUDON, NH - SEPTEMBER 18:  Bobby Labonte, driver of the #71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet, waits by his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 18, 2009 in Loudon, New Hampshire  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Every sport is susceptible to see its greatest stars come and go for various reasons. Some athletes call their career due to age, the perfect ending (such as scoring the game-winning touchdown or winning a World Series), as well as the inability to perform competitively in the ever-changing climate of their game.

In the case of Bobby Labonte, the once-formidable race and title contender has seen his stock deteriorate in the world of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

While he is certainly no slouch or field filler, the fact is that Labonte's days of consistently dueling with the likes of Tony Stewart, the Busch brothers, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson are long over.

Some have noticed the 2000 Cup champ's lackluster performances as far back as mid-2004, when his No. 18 Interstate Batteries team relegated themselves from title contenders to a collective simply lost at the track.

Once the potent force at any given track, problems not only befell the Joe Gibbs Racing group, but it was also apparent with the driver.

Labonte has shown some flashes of brilliance although he is currently mired in a six-year winless streak, when he (as well as a flat tire by the race leader) virtually stole the season finale away from Bill Elliott at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He nearly won the 2005 Coca-Cola 600, only to be defeated at the stripe by Jimmie Johnson by a matter of inches in a memorable photo finish.

If you thought Labonte, the younger brother of two-time titlist Terry, took the defeat with grace and dignity, chew on this:

As memorable as his helmet-tossing highlight at Bristol in 1996, Bobby kicked the door panel of his FedEx/Interstate Batteries Chevy on pit road, disgusted and angered that his car did not have the power to stave off NASCAR's "golden boy."

The competitive fire was still there for the Texan, whose aggressive yet calculating driving style urged him to success from 1995-2003. In between that time, he won 21 races, placed in the top-10 in points in all but two seasons (1996 and '02), as well as capturing (so far) his only Cup title of his illustrious career.

Sure, his wins total is not exactly in the neighborhood of a Gordon, Johnson, or Stewart, but considering the ladder of success that Labonte had to endure to eventually earn his ride, his numbers appear more impressive.

Unfortunately, Labonte's stock and his career have been irrelevant at best, taking on the role of the respectable, dependable driver who urges his C+ equipment home to a top-20 finish.

Race weekends for the 45-year-old simply mean just making the race, driving a safe, clean race, and packing up his equipment while the young guns and multi-car conglomerates bask in the glory of victory or prestige.

After Labonte decided to bolt out of the No. 43 team by the conclusion of the 2008 season, fans speculated that he would land a ride with the Richard Childress Racing stable.

However, sponsorship did not materialize with the prominent multi-car organization, relegating him to find the last bits of any respectable ride in the Cup circuit.

Weeks before Speedweeks 2009 at Daytona, the 2000 champ signed-on with the No. 96 Instruments Hall of Fame Racing team aligned with Yates Racing.

On paper, it looked like it would Labonte's best shot at his return as a driver known more than just a respectable ran-in.

That said, 2009 has been a truly disappointing experience and season for the Corpus Christi, Texas, native.

Just a few weeks before the Chase, mired in the bottom-20s of the points standings, Labonte was pulled from the No. 96 ride for select races in favor of 26-year-old Roush-Fenway Racing prospect Erik Darnell.

Darnell was brought in because of his association with Northern Tools and Equipment, who sponsored his efforts in the Camping World Truck Series with Roush's group in that division.

As is the case with most season veterans as opposed to the young guns, Labonte was sidelined because the sponsor desired a fresh face over an experienced, perennial name.

In just a matter of a few days during that same week, Labonte signed on for a select number of events to drive for Kevin Buckler's No. 71 TRG Motorsports team.

Expectations were not too great with this group, as this collective was in their freshman season of Cup racing and had lukewarm success with previous driver David Gilliland.

Although Labonte and Buckler have not set the world on fire, their results and performances do warrant some talk and merit. Labonte still displays some moments and prospects of returning to his winning form, although he is hardly a top-10 racer as he was during his Joe Gibbs Racing days.

Still, the combination of Labonte and Buckler seem to pair and match well so far in the two races they have competed in together.

At arguably the best track for the Texas gunslinger, Labonte brought the No. 71 Taxslayer Chevy home to an 18th place result, 12 spots better than his replacement, Darnell, fared in the No. 96 Ford.

Two weeks later at Loudon, Labonte caused a bit of a story when he qualified Bucker's ride to an eighth-place effort. With limited funding and sponsorship, driver and team owner worried that they did not have enough money to complete the 300-lap event on Sunday.

"I hope we get to race on Sunday," Labonte said following his suprising-qualifying efforts last weekend. "We still don't have enough money to race. We are still looking for a little bit to race on Sunday. Hopefully, this will do it."

A local banking firm, SBLI Insurance, joined in at the very last second, thus making it possible for the No. 71 team to complete the race. All things considered, their 22nd-place finish was quite a remarkable result.

The duo have five more races together, pairing up at Kansas on Oct. 4 and for all the races in the month of November.

Perhaps it may be an audition for Labonte, who may just be the driver that Buckler needs to boost and enhance his organization for the 2010 season.

With the likes of Richard Petty Motorsports switching from Dodge to Ford next year, Dodge could use another team and perhaps TRG Motorsports could be their next client.

So while Labonte's days of contending for a title are long gone, do not count him out when it comes to pulling into Victory Lane.

As the legendary Buddy Baker once said about a driver who puts in their total effort, even with inferior equipment, Bobby Labonte "can still drive the wheels out of his car."

Surely, Labonte has never forgotten how to drive a racecar, nor will he ever lose those abilities to still be quite the competitive talent on the track.