No matter who of the four drivers that came roaring off turn four toward the finish line would have won the Daytona 500, the story would have been big.
[media-credit name=”Joe Dunn” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]None of them had ever won the Great American Race before. They weren’t alone, 16 of the top 17 finishers in last weekend’s Daytona 500 had never won it before. And five of those 17 drivers have never a Sprint Cup race in their career.
Fourth place finisher Bobby Labonte wasn’t one of them. He’s won races before and he’s won big races. Last weekend though he was racing in his 19th Daytona 500 and could see and smell his first victory in the Daytona 500.
Labonte was pushing eventual winner Trevor Bayne when Carl Edwards and David Gilliland came roaring past and took away his chance at a slingshot.
“It was a little bit of disappointment that we didn’t win because we were this close,” said Labonte Friday in Phoenix.
“But, as the sun was starting to set I said, ‘Alright, it’s not going to change.’”
Labonte can take comfort in the fact that it was his first top five finish in nearly two years. He hasn’t won a race since the season finale at Homestead in 2003. It will just be another year before he can add the Daytona 500 to his already impressive resume.
A resume which includes the Brickyard 400 and a championship. The finish though was a nice way to start off a new season where Labonte finds himself in a new home.
After leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005, he’s floated around to many different teams. He signed on with JTG-Daugherty Racing after Marcos Ambrose walked out the door for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Labonte will find stability and competitiveness in his new ride as the team looks for him to help them find the winner’s circle.
“For our race team it was really exciting,” Labonte said about Daytona.
“Tad and Jodi (Geschickter, co-owners) and Brad (Daugherty). It was a great thing for the organization and great finish for the team. No doubt that it was a great way to start our year off with them. One race out of 36 is a small amount, but still at the same time it was definitely, I think it was one of the best finishes to date — they were second at the Glen behind Juan (Pablo Montoya). To come back on an oval track and go through the [Budweiser] Shootout, the twin race and then the 500 — to come home with a top-five I know was a good day for them.”
A top five finish will always be a good day just not a great one when it occurs in the biggest race of the year.
“A little disappointment obviously at the end, no doubt about it,” he said.
“You get that close you better have a little bit of disappointment for a little bit at least, but then you’ve got to get over it. We got over it and now we’re like, that was a great weekend for all of our associates.”
The real racing and season begins this weekend in Phoenix where Labonte enters third in points, tied for second, just one point behind leader Edwards. While he’s never won at Phoenix, he does have nine top 10s in 24 starts. With the newfound confidence that the team and Labonte has, that could change this weekend.
Besides confidence, Labonte feels there a great relationship between himself and JTG-Daugherty will develop moving foward. After they tested in the offseason and headed to Daytona, he said nearly everyone on the team had a spring in their step. It continued during Speedweeks.
It makes the 2011 season one with many goals.
“Well, if it rained for the next 26 weeks we would be in the top-12 in points,” he said.
“I think there will be other problems if it does rain for 26 weeks in a row. We set out some goals that were we’ve got to finish top-10 in points, we’ve got to win a race, we’ve got to win a pole — we’ve got to do this and that. Our goal is obviously to have less DNFs than they (JTG-Daugherty) had last year as a team. Perform a little bit better on the racetrack as a team and get better as the race goes on.”
The next few weeks, said Labonte, will show the No. 47 team their strengths and weaknesses.
“We might gel right away, we might find there’s things that make me feel good — who knows. But, I think realistically we’d love to be in the top-12 in points after race 26.”
A great resource for the team is that while it’s a single car operation, JGT-Daugherty does have teammates in Michael Waltrip Racing. Labonte says they have meetings with MWR and their drivers. Both companies also have similar equipment.
Those variables are what help Labonte talk about what he believes the team will accomplish this season.
Said Labonte, “The object is to just go out there and do the best we can with the group that we have and have those great moments and have races that will have us in the top-12 at the end of 26 races.”