Bobby Labonte: NASCAR's Most Underrated Driver

Clayton CaldwellCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 05:  Bobby Labonte, driver of the #96 Ford, poses during NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway on February 5, 2009 in Daytona, Florida.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

In the 2009 offseason, one of the nicest men in the garage area, Bobby Labonte, was searching for a ride after a merger between Gillette Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises left him out of work.

Labonte had slim pickings in January when he signed on to drive for Hall of Fame Racing, leaving fans scratching their heads.

Hall of Fame Racing? Really?

After all, this was a team J.J. Yeley had driven out of the top-35 last season. They had a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and they had the manufacture in the best shape due to this economy in Toyota and still struggled. They had ownership problems and no sponsor.

What was Labonte thinking? and Academy Sports and Outdoors took a chance with Hall of Fame and Labonte to sponsor the team.

Yet, here we are six races into the 2009 season, and Labonte is sitting 19th in points, just 84 points out of Chase contention.

Are you kidding? With Hall of Fame Racing?

The fact is, Labonte is the most underrated driver in NASCAR.

This is a man who, in three years at Petty Enterprises, finished 21st, 18th, and 21st in the point standings with an organization who basically had one team for three seasons.

As much as we all loved Petty Enterprises, including Labonte, no one can deny they were lousy. Finishing that high in points was really impressive.

Labonte has taken a team who lost sponsorship last season and is coming off a miserable 2008, and given it an outside chance at making the 2009 Chase.

What has changed?

Todd Parrott is the new crew chief over at HOF Racing, and Labonte is the driver. Other than that, everyone is the same.

Can Labonte really make that big of a difference?

Of course. The most important member on a team is the driver, and Hall of Fame has a great one. That is why they are having so much success this season.

Not only that, Labonte is an extremely nice man. I've met him twice and each time, he's been the best man in the sport. He thanked every fan for coming out to his autograph session and talked to every single fan.

Maybe nice guys do finish first. He certainly has the talent, and now he finally has an up-and-coming team to help him get back to Victory Lane.