Talk about a hectic week for Bobby Labonte.
On Monday, the former Cup Series champion found out that, due to a lack of sponsorship on his No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing Ford, Yates Racing (tasked with filling any sponsorship gaps on the car) was replacing him for seven races with Erik Darnell, who drives part-time for Roush-Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series.
The move was unpopular with most in the garage, with some wondering how a former champion with a seemingly committed sponsor (Ask.com) could be replaced so easily—at Atlanta, a track he used to dominate, no less.
Now, that’s not a knock against Darnell, and nobody has any ill will for him. In limited Nationwide starts this year, he’s shown prowess on most tracks, scoring five top-10's in 10 starts with an average finish of 12.3. Last year he finished fourth in the Truck Series standings, with one win and 12 top-10's. The sponsors like him, and he can flat out drive. He’s earned his shot.
But the way in which Labonte was replaced—especially the sudden nature of the move—left a lot of folks with a bitter taste in their mouth. Those cynics who used to scoff at open-wheel racing’s practice of hiring pay drivers are now faced with NASCAR teams ousting former champions to do the same thing.
Worst of all for Labonte, it looked as if his start streak of 568 consecutive races, second only to Jeff Gordon (569) for most consecutive starts by an active driver, was going to come to a close.
Luckily for Labonte, this story has a happy ending.
Kevin Buckler, a prominent sports car team owner who put together a Sprint Cup team for this year, decided that Labonte was an upgrade over David Gilliland behind the wheel. He came calling, and by Thursday Labonte had a ride for the seven races he was previously scheduled to miss. He’ll drive the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet.
In this scenario, everybody wins in some way or another.
Given the grassroots nature of Buckler’s team, putting a past champion behind the wheel accomplishes two things: first, it gives the team a shot at the past champion’s provisional in future races. And second, it makes the team more attractive to potential small sponsors.
If Labonte can attract one or two companies to support TRG, either by his resume or his on-track performance, it could eventually help Gilliland run full races instead of starting and parking.
Gilliland has been a loyal soldier to the team’s efforts this year, running respectably when he’s been able to and refusing to bail on his team (a la Scott Riggs) during the tough times. He, too, deserves a shot at running well.
Kudos to Buckler for making a move with benefits for everybody. We’ll see how it works out in the coming weeks.