You have to go all the way back to the last race of the 1992 season to find a race that Bobby Labonte did not compete in. That is a streak of 704 consecutive starts. Labonte did start two races in 1991 driving an Oldsmobile owned by his father, but did not start again until the 1993 Daytona 500 driving the Maxwell House Ford for Bill Davis. This weekend, however, that streak will come to an end.
Since 2011, Labonte has driven for JTG/Daugherty racing. Results have been less than stellar, to say the least. In 88 starts with the team, Labonte has only scored one top-5 finish and two top-10’s.
Recently, team owners Brad Daugherty and Tad Geschickter have decided they need to do something to improve the performance of the team. With five races coming up in the schedule in which the car would be un-sponsored or under-sponsored, the decision was made to take Labonte out of the car in favor of AJ Allmendinger in an effort to get a new perspective and feedback on what the team needs to do to make improvements.
The decision to remove Labonte from the car was not popular with many fans. On Tuesday, Daugherty and Labonte addressed fans in an online chat session hosted on the team’s website.
One of the first things announced was that Labonte would not only not be in the 47 car this week, but he also would not be racing at all, thus ending the second longest active consecutive start streak. Labonte was also removed from the car at Michigan two weeks ago, but picked up a one race deal with Phoenix Racing, an effort that kept the streak alive.
Some fans in the chat session were outraged by this fact and instantly began blaming the team for not supporting their driver. It would seem the fans are more concerned with the streak than Labonte is. Labonte commented, “I have had a couple offers this morning, but have declined them because I don’t want anybody else that has an opportunity to do what I do, what they love, to have to sit on the sideline for my sake.” Removing the possibility of a last minute deal over the weekend, he also pointed out, “I will not be at the track this weekend.”
Daugherty was asked if the “fan uprising” affects his decision at all. He replied, “No. The fan uprising doesn’t affect me at all. We have to continue to conduct business the way that it will be best for our company. Tremendous amount of respect for Bobby, but we have to remember that his streak would have ended years ago before we gave him the ride. The fan uprising is just a handful of people and that doesn’t direct the way that we do our business. We obviously love our fans and need them to do what we do, but at the end of the day we have to make the decisions that are best for our company.”
Labonte defended his team and team owners, commenting, “We have great sponsors here at JTG Daugherty, and we have a great race team. There are a lot of committed people that work here. Our sponsors are what keep us funded and racing. Our owners juggle all of the balls in the air at all times. We don’t question how our sponsors run their business.”
Daugherty re-iterated the team’s support for Labonte saying, “In the end, Bobby is our driver and we hope this process will enhance his ability to get back up front.” He continued later saying, “I’m huge Bobby Labonte fan, have been for a long time. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his character. We are very lucky to have Bobby as our driver.”
Daugherty seemed to be pleased with the results from the first race with Allmendinger. When asked about what the team had learned he said, “The biggest thing we learned was the pickup torque of our engines is not quite where we want it to be. We also learned our car is a lot tighter than we’d like it to be, robbing it of speed. Valuable information that we have stalled out over the past few weeks and he was able to give us great feedback.”
The team currently purchases engines from Triad Racing Technology. Toyota Racing Development (TRD) supplies engines for the top tier Toyota teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing. Daugherty pointed out, “We believe TRD provides an excellent product and at this point TRD has told us that they don’t have the room to provide us with an engine set.”
Without the ability to receive engines from TRD, and with little or no support from Toyota, I asked Daugherty if there was a current effort to create an alliance with a larger team. Daugherty replied, “Yes, we have had conversations and we are trying to figure out what would be the best move for us going forward. We came out of the MWR situation simply because we were all struggling. Obviously, they have fixed a lot over at MWR so someone like that may be a suitable partner again. We will have to see.”
Labonte also commented, when asked what the team needed, “We probably need an alliance with another team. That would be a start.”
Smaller teams forming alliances with larger teams seems to be the new trend in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Furniture Row Racing has recently found success after forming a strong alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
It seems that Brad Daugherty and Tad Geschickter are making a legitimate effort to improve their team’s performance. Their support for Labonte has been consistent and direct. This situation is just another example of how NASCAR racing is a business. Race teams have to make decisions based on technical information, facts, budgets and the needs of their sponsors and business partners. Major decisions cannot be based on emotions or the desire to keep streaks alive. No one in this sport would have a bad thing to say about Bobby Labonte. He is a man of proven ability and character. The fact that many fans are upset over him being removed from the car temporarily is evidence of that. Those factors, however, are not enough to be successful when competing against the best of the best.
The JTG/Daugherty team seems to be committed to their driver and also seriously committed to becoming a better race team. It is this writer’s opinion that they are doing what they need to do to accomplish their goals.